Former Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi falsely insisted on Wednesday, March 6, that only eight women and children were killed in the battle to retake Mosul from Islamic State in 2016 and 2017.
“They give me numbers of civilians. Every time I ask the number of civilians and children,” Abadi said during a discussion Sulaimani Forum in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. “I’ll give you this data … There were only eight women and children. Eight, only eight, out of 1,400.”
The Iraqi Security Forces, including Hashd al-Shaabi militias and Kurdistan Regional Government Peshmerga, assisted by the U.S.-led international Coalition to defeat ISIS, seized Mosul after a nine-month battle with ISIS in July 2017.
Counts of the battle’s death toll vary widely, but independent monitors place the number of dead civilians in the several thousands.
Abadi, then commander-in-chief of the Iraqi armed forces, doubled down on the assertion when challenged by NPR international correspondent Jane Arraf.
“You’re saying only eight women and children killed in Mosul?” Arraf asked.
“Yes,” Abadi said. “Less than ten. Eight … Probably the number eight has increased a bit, and that was at one stage,” Abadi said.
“I was there! Looking in the streets, looking who is going where, who going around, I made sure that there were no civilians, only combatants,” he said.
Arraf, who reported on the death toll from Mosul in December 2017, replied that “thousands” of civilians were buried under the rubble after they had taken shelter in basements and been used as human shields by Islamic State.
“Every door you go to in the old city of Mosul, they have lost someone, and it was usually women and children,” she said.
Abadi denied it. “The old city was almost empty from the people, I’ve been there … during the liberation,” he replied, adding, “We had open corridors, and the majority of people, they left.”
“I’ve seen the bodies myself,” Arraf told the former prime minister. “I’ve seen the bodies of children lying on the ground … There were so many bodies, so many civilians killed in Mosul.”
“How do you know they were civilians?” Abadi asked.
“Because the children are civilians, are they not?” Arraf replied.
Abadi conceded that point, then asked how Arraf would have access to morgue reports that “they don’t show me.”
Arraf reported for NPR in December 2017 that the director of Mosul’s central morgue had recorded 4,865 total death certificates issued between the onset and end of the battle in July 2017, citing a majority as civilian deaths by airstrikes.
“Damned ISIS was shooting one or two bullets and the airstrikes destroyed the whole neighborhood,” Dr. Raid Al-Abadi, then the director of Mosul’s morgue, told Arraf.
The former prime on Wednesday minister blamed an “organized campaign” of disinformation, and said he relies on a number of sources.
“I visited Mosul. I met with normal people. They were very happy by liberation,” Abadi insisted. “I would have seen that. [They] would have said, ‘You killed our children, you killed our women! You’ve killed our civilians!’ I never heard this,” Abadi said.
He added that he would not have polled at “number one” in Mosul during the 2018 elections had the city’s death toll been so high.
A December 2017 Associated Press investigation placed the number of Mosul’s civilian dead between 9,000 and 10,000 – nearly ten times higher than previous official estimates – with Iraqi and Coalition forces responsible for some 3,200.
The investigation cited a number of independent monitors, including Amnesty International and the United Nations, as well as a list of 9,606 names obtained from Mosul’s morgue. Abadi at the time told the AP that 1,260 civilians were killed in the fighting.
The U.S.-led Coalition has no known public count of civilians killed in the battle.
After the battle, then CJTF-OIR commander Major General Stephen J. Townsend blamed ISIS for turning the city “into a Stalingrad” by using civilians as human shields.
“I don’t find that the Coalition or our Iraqi partners could have done much more,” Townsend said during an interview with Time Magazine in September 2017.
The Coalition conducted some 1,250 strikes on the city with more than 29,000 munitions released, according to its own figures provided to Airwars.
U.S. defense officials denied any relaxing of the rules of engagement. Former Defense Secretary James Mattis described using “annihilation tactics” against ISIS, while former CJTF-OIR spokesperson Colonel Ryan Dillon told The Defense Post a few months after the battle ended that it was “combat that you would typically only think about seeing in the movies.”
Asked about the battle’s death count on Wednesday, CJTF-OIR spokesperson Sean Ryan said, “The defeat of ISIS is about stopping their terror campaign throughout Iraq and Syria, which has affected hundreds of thousands of lives.”
“The Coalition would never speculate on the number of lives lost,” Ryan told The Defense Post by email.
CJTF-OIR’s most recent civilian death count claims its strikes have unintentionally killed 1,257 civilians from the beginning of Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq and Syria in June 2014 until January 2019.
A spokesperson for the Iraqi Ministry of Defense could not confirm the number cited by Abadi and referred The Defense Post to Iraq’s Joint Operations Command.
“As you know, in every battle there must be loss of life … The terrorists used the citizens as human shields to protect themselves,” the MOD spokesperson said.
A Joint Operations Command spokesperson did not return a request for comment by publication time.