The U.S. government has designated parts of the University of Mosul “Islamic State headquarters,” according to a report from VICE News, a revelation that comes days after airstrikes on the educational institution reportedly killed at least a dozen Iraqi civilians.
On Sunday teleSUR reported that a barrage of suspected U.S. airstrikes on Mosul – Iraq's second-largest city, occupied by the Islamic State group since June 2014 – had killed a large number of civilians, according to local press reports. Chris Woods, director of the monitoring group Airwars, told teleSUR his group had seen “credible claims of 25 or more than civilians killed” in the March 19 attack, which he said “was shocking in its ferocity and reckless in its apparent disregard for civilian lives.”
The strikes also reportedly killed scores of Islamic State group militants.
The U.S. government, which has led a coalition of nations conducting airstrikes against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria since August 2014, admits it was operating in the area at the time.
“In Mosul, we struck an ISIL headquarters and weapons manufacturing facility on Saturday, March 19,” Colonel Steve Warren, spokesperson for the U.S.-led coalition, told reporters Monday.
The department did not respond to teleSUR's request for comment, but on Monday a spokesperson confirmed to VICE News that “its reference to an Islamic State headquarters was actually (a reference) to the University of Mosul.”
The University of Mosul, founded in 1967, is an Islamic State "headquarters," according to the U.S. | Photo: Google Maps
It is illegal under international law to deliberately target civilian institutions, unless there is an unequivocal military justification, such as preventing an imminent attack. According to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, “Intentionally directing attacks against buildings dedicated to religion, education, art, science or charitable paces” is a “serious” war crime – “provided they are not military objectives.”
The Geneva Conventions likewise state that, “In case of doubt whether an object which is normally dedicated to civilian purposes, such as a place of worship, a house or other dwelling or a school, is being used to make an effective contribution to military action, it shall be presumed not to be used.”
Despite an Islamic State presence on the campus, which may itself constitute a violation of the laws of war – the group's “Minister of High Education” was reportedly killed in Saturday’s airstrikes – the University of Mosul is still functioning as a school, albeit with severe restrictions on the curriculum.
In the past, the U.S. has criticized attacks on schools, even those committed by close allies who claim they were attacking militants who did not respect international law.
“The United States is appalled by today’s disgraceful shelling outside an UNRWA school in Rafah,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said in 2014 amid an Israeli attack on Gaza Strip. “We once again stress that Israel must do more to meet its own standards and avoid civilian casualties.”
At the time, Israel claimed militants were firing rockets from schools and other civilian buildings. “When a schoolhouse, hospital, (or) mosque is turned into a military command center or a weapons depot, or a place where you fire rockets, it becomes by the rules of war a legitimate target,” said Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer.
The U.S. rejected that argument, then.
“Now,” Colonel Warren said Monday, “there have been some press reports of civilian casualties as a result of this (Mosul) strike. As with any civilian casualty allegation, we will review the information we have about the incident, and if the information is determined to be credible, we will investigate further.”
Over the past 19 months of bombing, the U.S. has admitted to killing 21 civilians in Iraq and Syria. According to Airwars’ compilation of what it considers credible reports, the real death toll is likely to be over 1,000.
Charles Davis is an editor at teleSUR. Follow him on Twitter: @charliearchy