As It Happens

U.S. colonel defends Mosul mission after civilian deaths and allegations of torture by Iraqi troops

As It Happens asks coalition spokesperson Col. Ryan Dillon how the U.S. can trust its allies in Mosul to protect civilians when footage appears to show Iraqi troops torturing detainees.
Iraqi rapid response forces help displaced Iraqi women who fled homes during a fight between Iraqi forces and ISIS militants in al-Zanjili neighbourhood north of Old City district of Mosul on Tuesday. (Alaa Al-Marjani/Reuters)

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As the battle for Mosul intensifies, some 200,000 civilians are caught in the crossfire between ISIS fighters who use them as human shields and U.S.-backed Iraqi troops who have been accused of torturing and executing them for information. 

ABC News last week released video that appears to show Iraqi forces torturing detainees in Mosul.

The footage was smuggled out of the country by a photojournalist who alleges he witnessed Iraq's Emergency Response Division killing, torturing and raping ISIS suspects, some of whom he believes were innocent civilians.

While Iraq's Interior Ministry investigates those allegations, U.S. forces are fighting alongside Iraqi troops to drive ISIS militants from remaining pockets of Mosul. Last week, a Pentagon investigation found that a U.S. airstrike in Mosul was behind more than 100 civilian deaths.

As It Happens host Carol off spoke to Col. Ryan Dillon, a spokesperson for the coalition in Iraq and Syria. Here is part of their conversation.

Carol Off: There are 200,000 civilians trapped behind the lines in Mosul, and we've heard reports about shortages of everything — food, water, medicine. How can you 'annihilate' ISIS without also killing many civilians?

Ryan Dillon: The Iraqi security forces have alerted those who are remaining in West Mosul to get out of the old town and the old city if they can safely. And we have heard reports from those who have been able to flee that ISIS is using humans as shields.

The quickest way to stop human suffering is by defeating ISIS. They certainly do not care about the human aspect. They don't care about the civilians that remain in there. But the Iraqi security forces and the coalition forces who support them are doing everything that we can to mitigate civilian casualties, and we only target legitimate military targets.

A member of the Iraqi forces advances in Mosul's western al-Saha neighbourhood during their ongoing battle to retake the area from ISIS. (Karim Sahib/AFP/Getty Images)

CO: Last week the Pentagon released the results of its investigation into that bombing of a building in Mosul in March. You were targeting ISIS there but over 100 civilians were killed in that attack. How do you expect the Iraqis, the people in Mosul, to trust the United States and your partners on the ground?

RD: First off, the results of that investigation pointed to that it was the secondary explosion by explosives that were placed in the building by ISIS that caused the catastrophic failure of that building to collapse and therefore kill those civilians. Had ISIS not placed those explosives then we would not have seen the same results that had happened.

More than 100 civilians were killed by U.S. airstrikes that hit a cluster of homes in Mosul in March. (Felipe Dana/Associated Press)

CO: But it's not just what ISIS is doing, planting these bombs. The monitoring site Airwars reported that between 283 and 366 civilians have died from coalition airstrikes in Iraq in Syria just in the month of April alone. What is considered an acceptable level of civilian casualties right now by U.S. forces?

RD:  Our goal is to have zero civilian causalities as a result of our strikes, but we are going to defeat ISIS and we must ensure that we follow and we do, the laws of armed conflict, and we go through a very deliberate process to make sure that we minimize civilian casualties whenever we conduct our strikes, because ISIS must be defeated. 

A member of Iraqi rapid response forces prepares to reach the frontline during clashes with ISIS fighters in western Mosul. (Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters)

CO: Hasn't it been shown though that one of the best recruiting tools for ISIS are these civilian deaths?

RD: ISIS use this propaganda and that is another one of the things that the coalition will go after to make sure that this propaganda and the sites that ISIS uses are also dismantled and degraded so that they cannot use these. 

CO: We have seen video footage smuggled out of Iraq by a journalist and broadcast on ABC news. It appears to show Iraqi special forces, the ones we have been speaking about, who are the ground forces in Mosul ... torturing and executing civilians in Mosul. These are the forces that you're asking us to trust to prevent civilian casualties. Do you consider what they did to be war crimes?

RD: We certainly, as a coalition, do not condone or support any violation of the laws of armed conflict and we work very hard in our training of Iraqi security forces to ensure that they are aware and understand as respondents of a professional fighting force to abide by these laws. The prime minister has stated that everyone will abide by the law and he has zero-tolerance policy for any improper action by Iraqi security forces and we agree 100 per cent.

CO: Will there be consequences for the troops involved in that torture?

RD: That is something that will be decided by the government of Iraq. They are a sovereign entity and they will look into this investigation, make the recommendations, and if this solider is to be held accountable it will be up to them to decide what they must do.

Displaced Iraqi children stand in the Hammam al-Alil camp, south of Mosul, after fleeing their homes in the city's western al-Saha neighbourhood during the government forces' ongoing battle to retake the area. (Karim Sahib/AFP/Getty Images)

CO: But these are your partners on the ground. You've just said that you trust and rely on them and their judgement. So how can you say it's just up to the Iraqi government to decide whether they did something wrong? Does the U.S. not have a voice in that at all?

RD: We do not condone or support any violations of the laws of armed conflict and they would be unacceptable and they should be investigated in a transparent manner and those deemed responsible held accountable in accordance with due process in Iraqi law. 

With files from Associated Press. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more, listen to our full interview with Col. Ryan Dillon.

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