Felipe Dana / AP
The U.S. military said its priority was to stop people suffering by defeating ISIS as quickly as possible.
“The longer this takes, the more the people will suffer under ISIS,” it said.
However, humanitarian workers in Mosul said this sense of urgency trumped their efforts to make coalition forces more mindful of the civilian population packed into a city that had some 1.5 million residents before the conflict started.
Belkis Wille, senior Iraq researcher for Human Rights Watch, told NBC News that in the final push to take Mosul there was a “massive uptick in ground fire” and the use of large 500-1,000-pound crater bombs that cause huge destruction and many deaths.
Human Rights Watch made recommendations to the warring parties to take some of those powerful weapons off the table, Wille said.
But there was a “general feeling among the military forces, ‘We need to keep the momentum up. It’s better for the civilians of Mosul if we can get ISIS out,'” she said.
For the Iraqi military, ISIS’ use of civilians as human shields made some casualties inevitable.
“It is a battle inside towns and cities, so there must be some casualties among civilians when you target ISIS terrorists who are hiding among civilians,” Brig. Yahya Rasool, the spokesman of the Iraqi Joint Operation Command, told NBC News in a phone interview.
Rasool said the Iraqi forces’ “main concern is to prevent civilian deaths.” He defended the U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, saying they were “very precise” and rely on “precise intelligence information.”
For the people caught in the crossfire in Mosul over the last few months, it’s been a living hell.
“That place, it was absolute death,” a man fleeing Mosul’s Old City told the AP on Wednesday. “We will never be the same. Once the fear has been planted in your heart, you can’t get rid of it.”
‘Staggering loss of life’
Meantime, coalition forces have also been closing in on
Raqqa, the Syrian capital of the ISIS caliphate.
The city of approximately 220,000 is considerably smaller than Mosul, but it is of immense strategic importance to ISIS militants because they have used it as a base to launch attacks on the West.
In June, the U.N. Human Rights Council denounced the
“staggering loss of civilian life” caused by the intensification of airstrikes on Raqqa.
“Violence continues to be directed against civilians, with complete disrespect for civilian protection,” Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, the head of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria, said in a statement.
The fighting has involved the “unrestrained use of airstrikes against residential neighborhoods, attacks against doctors and hospitals, [and] the use of suicide bombers that deliberately target civilians,” he added. “Fighting remains brutal in purpose and reprehensible in method.”
He also warned against tactics that involved civilian deaths as collateral damage.
“The imperative to fight terrorism must not, however, be undertaken at the expense of civilians who unwillingly find themselves living in areas where ISIL is present,” Pinheiro said.
Kinda Haddad, the head of Syria research at Airwars, has been monitoring U.S.-led coalition air strikes, as well as Russian and Assad regime-led strikes, for the last two and half years. She said she used to see an average of three to ten alleged coalition airstrikes per week — but now she regularly sees about 50 per week.
“Earlier the [local] monitors said they knew when the airstrikes were coalition strikes because they were so precise,” said Haddad. “But that has changed.”
“The trend is telling us something,” said Hadid. “The fighting is too intense. Choices can still be made. The preservation of human life should be at the forefront, not an afterthought.”
For the aid organizations trying to help civilians fleeing the violence, it has been an extremely challenging experience to say the least.
“This is a very sophisticated conflict,” Jonathan Henry, of Doctors Without Borders, told NBC News by phone from Iraq last week. “It is an urban conflict akin to World War II. It is very challenging to work in.”
Henry is the outgoing emergency coordinator for the organization, which is also known as Medecins San Frontiers. in West Mosul. He said that even for MSF, which specializes in sending medical teams to conflict zones, trying to provide medical care to civilians when doctors are in range of artillery and sniper fire has not been easy.
“The horrific theme of the conflict, where women and children are among the victims, is extremely traumatic,” said Henry, who has worked for MSF for the past 12 years in places like Darfur, Ethiopia and Syria.
On one positive note, he said that within days of opening their most recent medical treatment center close to the front line in West Mosul, they had their first baby delivery.
“So life goes on, even in a war zone,” he said.