Iraqi military leaders have ordered a pause in their push to recapture west Mosul from Islamic State as international outrage mounted over a series of airstrikes that killed at least 150 people in one district of the embattled city alone.
Rescuers continued to retrieve bodies from the rubble of the Mosul Jadida neighborhood on Saturday, more than a week after the coalition attacks, which are believed to have led to one of the highest civilian tolls in the region since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.
A US Centcom statement confirmed coalition planes had carried out the attack on 17 March “at the request of the Iraqi security forces” and pledged to formally investigate the claims. The strike has intensified focus on civilian casualties in Mosul, where as many as 400,000 residents are thought to remain.
Civil defense workers say they have pulled more than 140 bodies from the ruins of three buildings and believe dozens more remain under the rubble of another, a large home with a once cavernous basement in which up to 100 people had hidden last Friday morning.
Locals at the site said the enormous damage caused to the homes and much of the surrounding area had been caused by airstrikes, which battered the neighborhood during a pitched battle between Isis members and Iraqi forces.
The UN’s humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, Lise Grande, said: “We are stunned by this terrible loss of life.” Chris Woods, the director of the monitoring group Airwars, said: “The al-Jadida incident alone is the worst toll of a single incident that I can recall in decades. I cannot think of a higher toll from a single event.
As the scale of the disaster became apparent, Iraqi military sources confirmed they had been ordered not to launch new operations in east Mosul, echoing a statement from a federal police spokesman that cited concern about civilian casualties as a reason for a pause.
The UK’s Ministry of Defense did not respond when asked if it was investigating the civilian deaths from airstrikes in Mosul, or if there were any concerns recent UK bombing raids in west Mosul could be linked to the killings.
Mosul Jadida residents said three homes had taken direct hits from airstrikes and others had been damaged by debris and shelling. “They started in the morning and they continued till around 2pm,” said Mustafa Yeheya.
“There were Isis fighters on the roof of several of the buildings and they were in the streets fighting, but the strange thing is that the house they were hiding in, their military room, was not even hit. None of their bases were.”
Yeheya took the Observer to a cluster of homes around the corner from the destruction and pointed to one on which a pejorative for Isis had been spray-painted. “This was one of their bases,” he said. Machine-gun rounds, a filthy blanket and two black wigs littered the floor.
“There is another house nearby where they coordinated their movements.”
Iraqi officials had been anxious to portray themselves as protectors of the civilians of Mosul, where the battle has been split into two halves, demarcated by the Tigris river, which bisects the city. The fight for the east bank took three months and, while civilians died during the fighting, it was seen as a military success.
The western bank was always expected to be a tougher proposition, with narrow lanes and densely packed districts meaning it would require difficult street fighting to subdue a dug-in enemy determined to hold on to its last urban stronghold in Iraq.
Journalists were banned from entering the west of the city on Saturday and Iraqi commanders could not be contacted. Iraqi and US forces have previously said that Isis deliberately blended among the civilian population and, in some cases, had stationed themselves near civilian targets in a bid to increase casualties, and to slow the offensive against them.
The Centcom statement said: “Our goal has always been for zero civilian casualties, but the coalition will not abandon our commitment to our Iraqi partners because of Isis’s inhuman tactics terrorizing civilians, using human shields, and fighting from protected sites such as schools, hospitals, religious sites and civilian neighborhoods.”
Muawiya Ismael, a local man who said he had lost six members of his clan in the attack, said: “It is true that this was a battle zone and that Isis were here. They had about 15 people in the area, and they were in high positions. But they did not have heavy guns. Nothing that should justify an attack of this scale. It was not in proportion to the threat and soldiers could have fixed this.”