US forces keen on avoiding civilian deaths in Mosul battle

QAYYARA WEST AIRFIELD, Iraq:  As the battle for Mosul moves to the narrow streets and densely packed houses of the Old City, US artillery gunners and helicopter pilots supporting Iraqi forces face an age-old problem — how to avoid killing civilians. They place their faith in precision missiles which can hit their target with great accuracy. But human instinct also comes into play against an IS enemy which has used civilians as human shields and hides in houses and mosques. “Our mission is to find and destroy ISIS. We are not here to kill the wrong people,” said Captain Lucas Gebhart, commander of the 4/6th Cavalry’s Bravo Troop of Apache attack helicopters.
The troop is based at this airfield about 60 kms south of Mosul, as is a rocket battery which fires into west Mosul.
A major site at the height of the US occupation, IS captured Qayyara from Iraqi government forces in 2014 and destroyed it. The Iraqis retook it in July last year, and now the US Army is building it up again as a support base for the Mosul operation.
Gebhart, who wore a US Cavalry hat with a crossed-sabre insignia along with his regular uniform, has been here since December. The troop flies close support for the Iraqi army and escorts medical evacuations. It has had more than 200 engagements with IS fighters in that time, he said.
“We fly every day, weather permitting. We are firing missiles most of the time,” Gebhart told reporters.
The Iraqi army started its offensive on Mosul, IS’s last stronghold in Iraq, in October and retook the east side of the city, bisected by the Tigris river, in January. The west, including the Old City, is much harder going.
“The west side is very congested and it will present new challenges for us. We realize the need to be careful as we go forward,” Gebhart said.
One of those challenges is avoiding civilian casualties in a conflict where fighters are mixed in among the population and sometimes hiding behind them.
“Everyone that flies with me are fathers and husbands, so we are very deliberate to avoid casualties we don’t want. We use guided missiles. The things we shoot from an Apache, they go where we want them to go,” Gebhart said.
Targets are identified and approved by the Iraqi army. But circumstances can change in a moment.
“I have personal experience of human shields. I engaged a target and they pulled a family of women and children out of a house. The missile was already in the air but I was able to move it,” he said. “You’ve got a little bit of time. If something happens post-missile release, we have procedures to move it.” Gebhart, aged 32, joined the military as a teenager after the 9/11 attacks on the United States. — Reuters