FADILIYA, Iraq (Reuters) - For Saeed Yousef, being rid of Islamic State came at a high price. As Kurdish forces drove militants from his Iraqi village four weeks ago, an air strike by a U.S.-led coalition hit his brother’s home, killing the brother and seven relatives, family and local officials say.
Only days later when the jihadists withdrew from Fadiliya, around 9 miles (15 km) northeast of Mosul, were the family able to dig the charred bodies from the rubble for burial.
The U.S.-led coalition supporting Iraqi forces battling Islamic State in Mosul is investigating and has not yet provided details, although it says it goes to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties. But Amer Yousef and his family are among increasing numbers caught in the crossfire of the campaign.
Piles of concrete, twisted steel rods and burnt metal bed frames are among what little remains of the family home. A car parked outside was overturned by the blast.
“There were three explosions in quick succession as we heard the sound of warplanes overhead,” said Yousef, 59, who was at home a short distance away when the air strike hit.
“My neighbour, who saw it, shouted to me: ‘That hit near your brother’s house’.”
Yousef said he rushed to the scene but was stopped by Islamic State fighters. His other brother who lived next door to Amer felt the strike and saw the immediate aftermath, including two bodies. But he had to run back indoors as gunfire between Islamic State and Kurdish peshmerga fighters whizzed overhead.
The jihadists have used civilians as human shields as they withdraw into the city, putting non-combatants in the firing line and making it difficult for Iraqi forces to advance after quick initial gains last month.
Fadiliya was recaptured on Oct. 27 by the peshmerga, which are involved in the campaign, more than two years after Islamic State seized the village as it swept through the region.
Its residents kept their heads down under Islamic State rule, trying to avoid beatings or execution. Many were tortured and some disappeared, locals say.
The villagers are mostly Sunni Muslims, who form a majority in many parts of north and west Iraq, though Shi’ites are the majority in the country as a whole.
As elsewhere, the militants embedded themselves close to civilians. A blackened section of the olive groves near Amer Yousef’s home shows where another air strike or mortar explosion hit.
“That was a Daesh (Islamic State) position,” Younes Shabak, a local leader in a Kurdish political party, said.
Saeed Yousef does not know whether the air strike was a mistake, or if Islamic State fighters were suspected of sheltering in the house, but said his brother had nothing to do with the militants. He wants an investigation.
“Maybe the strike was an error while they were trying to hit Daesh, we don’t know,” he said.
‘DEATH WILL REACH YOU’
“It was not a normal missile, the damage was huge. Three of the bodies were found 50 metres away from the house,” Yousef said, suggesting the blast had thrown them there.
Shabak said it was not the first time villagers had been killed in attacks by the U.S.-led coalition, and that another air strike in April last year killed five people.
The U.S. coalition said it was investigating the Oct. 22 incident.
“The coalition takes all allegations of civilian casualties seriously ... extraordinary efforts are made by the coalition to identify and strike appropriate targets in order to avoid non-combatant casualties,” it said via email.
It did not specify whether its warplanes had carried out strikes in that area on that date.
Since starting operations in 2014 until early November this year, the United States conducted more than 12,000 air strikes against Islamic State, according to U.S. military data, nearly 7,000 of them in Iraq and over 5,000 in Syria.
The Pentagon has said that 119 civilians have been killed in U.S. air strikes in Iraq and Syria since 2014.
Amnesty International said last month about 300 civilians have been killed in 11 coalition attacks in that time.
Airwars, a journalist-run project to monitor civilian casualties, estimates that the toll from “coalition actions” could be as high as over 1,800.
The figures do not appear to include the strike in Fadiliya.
Kurdish fighters helped remove rubble and the collapsed roof of Amer’s house with a digger after Fadiliya was recaptured so that the bodies could be found, Yousef said.
Weeks later, life was returning to the rural village where the brothers work as olive farmers. Sheep blocked narrow streets and children played football on a dusty pitch.
Yousef was still mourning his older brother, but tried to be philosophical.
“Living under Daesh was like being a prison,” he said. “Peace and security benefit the village as a whole. If it were a stark choice between having Daesh oppression here or my brother still around, I’d rather have no oppression. But that decision was up to God.”
The fate of the Islamic State militants who brought destruction upon Fadiliya was also in God’s hands, he said.
“Everyone dies,” he said, and quoted a verse from the Koran: “Wherever you are, death will reach you, even if you are in towers built up strong and high.”
Editing by Patrick Markey and Dominic Evans
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