The armed forces and government of Iraq has been recently condemned for wholesale destruction of civilian areas in territory held by the Islamic State (IS) militia, according to a report published yesterday by Britain’s The Independent newspaper. Both the army and government are fighting a tough battle of bullets and hearts against the Islamic State, who have overran large parts of Iraq‘s north and central regions in rapid succession, inflicting numerous atrocities. The Islamic State, formerly known as ISIS and ISIL, drove out Iraqi Army battalions in its advance on several towns and cities. As it has cemented its power, IS has killed and abducted hundreds of people from the country’s ethnic and religious minorities as it self-declared a caliphate across the parts of Iraq and Syria where it holds sway. IS have also beheaded two American journalists and one Syrian reporter and a British aid worker in quick succession as it threatens the West against interfering in the conflict.
The armed forces of Iraq have already been accused of killing ‘scores’ of civilians as it bombs residential areas in cities occupied by IS in its attempts to flush out the militia’s fighters. The recently appointed prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, has ordered the ceasing of bombing raids using highly destructive and illegal ‘barrel bombs’ on civilian areas yesterday (Saturday 13 August) to comply with conditions set by Iraqi Sunni tribal leaders who have agreed to pledge their support against the IS. The order was drafted in the previous Thursday; however reports from a source at a hospital in the city of Fallujah claim that on the same day that Prime Minister al-Abadi ordered the cessation of bombing, fourteen barrel bombs were dropped in the area, murdering twenty-two civilians.
“I have ordered the Iraqi Air Force to halt shelling of civilian areas even in those towns controlled by Isis,” Abadi said on his official Twitter account.
International charities observing the rapidly deteriorating situation in Iraq, including Human Rights Watch have recorded widespread and continual use of barrel bombs by Iraqi national forces since the IS began spilling across the Syrian-Iraqi border to set up their de facto caliphate earlier this year. IS now are said to control a third of Iraq, an area the size of the British Isles and have overrun parts of the autonomous Kurdistan region in Iraq’s north, where they have viciously persecuted the Yazidi, Turkmen, Assyrian Christian and Shi’a communities, forcing hundreds of thousands to flee for safer areas. IS now control several of the north’s major cities, including Mosul, Ramadi and Fallujah.
The devastation of barrel bombs – as seen in this eyewitness photo of damage in Syria.
IS militants have cleared out the old civilian and governmental agencies in their zone and established replacements staffed by their cadres. The streets of occupied cities like Fallujah often have IS fighters intermingling with locals, making it hard for government troops to separate the combatant from the innocent. As a result, entire cities under IS control have been considered legitimate targets by Iraq’s government, who have adopted an indiscriminate bombing approach. In July 2014, Human Rights Watch reported that the army was dropping barrel bombs on civilians in Isis-controlled towns including Fallujah, Beiji, Mosul, Tikrit and al-Sherqat. The charity claimed that seventy-five civilians have already perished in just one month of air strikes by their country’s air force and that barrel bombs accounted for seventeen of those deaths. Women and children were among the victims. Human Rights Watch have appealed to American and allied forces to discontinue the supply of heavy-grade weaponry and ammunition to Iraqi forces until they end their violation of war protocol and cease killing innocent civilians.
“The Iraqi government may be fighting a vicious insurgency, but that’s no license to kill civilians anywhere they think Isis might be lurking,” said Joe Stork, the deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
“The government’s air strikes are wreaking an awful toll on ordinary residents.”
The city of Fallujah has particularly suffered from the Iraqi army’s indiscriminate air raids, with much of the city left in ruins as Iraqi warplanes began operations against IS militants holed up there since January. It was the first large city to fall to IS. One witness, a 40-year-old man named in the report as Amar, claimed he saw an Iraqi barrel bomb on the 6th of July that claimed the lives of his brother and two unrelated people.
They had been fixing a generator that provides electricity to the al-Shurta area of Fallujah minutes before the attack.
“I went to my house which is about 50 yards away,” he said.
“The generator is in a yard and the barrel bombs fell on the street between the generator and the houses.
“It was like an earthquake and I ran to my brother, I saw his body and I saw four cars burning in the street.”
The other fatalities were a supermarket owner and a woman whose body parts had to be collected in a blanket by neighbours.
“I saw the bottom of the barrel and shrapnel,” Amar said, describing the bomb as a “ball of fire” dropped from a helicopter.
Under international treaties and law, the use of barrel bombs is illegal in civilian areas. The bombs tend to be made on a shoestring budget, and usually consist of a metal container, often a simple oil barrel, filled with explosives and shrapnel. The bomb is allowed to fall from a height and is activated via an inbuilt timer fuse. The bombs are designed to cause maximum damage and injury over a wide area, which makes them exceptionally lethal if dropped in a locale such as a residential street.
Also known as ‘flying IEDs‘ as they are an airborne version of the IEDs that were popular among militants in Iraq and Afghanistan, barrel bombs are normally dropped manually from helicopters or airplanes. Their size, lack of precision and indiscriminate impact upon detonation has drawn considerable criticism abroad and are banned under most international conventions of warfare as ‘weapons of terror’. The earliest known use was in Sudan in the 1990s where they were rolled out of cargo-doors of transport planes by the Sudanese army against civilian rebellions in Darfur region and what is now the independent nation of South Sudan. A barrel bomb is capable of levelling entire apartments. Cheaper than conventional bombs and relatively easy to manufacture on limited resources, they can cost as little as $200-300 to produce.
Barrel bombs have also been reported being dropped against towns in neighbouring Syria, and their usage in civilian areas there was one of the human rights abuses cited against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by international observers. The United Nations, which has expressed grave concerns against the war in both countries, recently published a report via its Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in which it stated: “The use of barrel bombs [indiscriminately in civilian areas] amounts to area bombardment, prohibited under international humanitarian law as a tactic that spreads terror among the civilian population,”
The United Nations representative for Iraq, Nikolay Mladenov, expressed his satisfaction at Iraqi prime minister al-Abadi’s move to stop the barrel bombs. He said: “Protection of civilians and ensuring their safety and security is a paramount priority for the United Nations“
In February 2014, the United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution that demanded an end to indiscriminate aerial bombardment including the use of barrel bombs. However their use in Iraq and Syria has seen the number of incidents skyrocket since the beginning of 2014.
Getty Images via Zemanta.