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Several airstrikes that have killed civilians during the campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq are likely linked to British forces, despite long-standing claims that British weapons did not harm a single non-combatant there, a Guardian investigation has found.

The British government and military have for years stood by the claim that Britain has waged a “perfect” war against Islamic State (IS) militants in Iraq in terms of protecting ordinary Iraqis.

However, allies in the US-led coalition, including Washington, have admitted killing hundreds of civilians in Iraq in the post-2014 period while supporting Iraqi ground forces.

Related: Lives ripped apart by British airstrikes in Mosul belie Britain’s ‘perfect’ precision warfare

The Guardian, in an investigation with non-profit regulator Airwars, has now identified six attacks in the Iraqi city of Mosul that killed civilians and appeared to have been carried out by British forces in 2016 and 2017.

Victims of two suspected British attacks have described for the first time the deaths and injuries of children, parents, brothers and sisters in rocket attacks that devastated their families.

A survivor lost her eldest daughter when a rocket exploded near her on a street in Mosul. Both of her legs had to be amputated. A second daughter still has shrapnel in her skull and her son, then a toddler, lost parts of a foot and a hand. Another woman lost almost all of her immediate family, including her mother, father, two siblings and two nephews, when a missile destroyed her home.

The US-led coalition has accepted civilian casualties in both airstrikes but has not said which country fired the guns. Overall, the coalition accepts the killing of 26 civilians in the six attacks in Mosul identified by the Guardian and Airwars as likely British attacks.

The Defense Ministry declined to confirm or deny whether the specific attacks were carried out by its forces, saying British forces had not killed or injured any civilians in Iraq. “There is no evidence or evidence that civilian casualties were caused by attacks in Syria and Iraq,” a spokesman said. “Britain always minimizes the risk of civilian casualties through our rigorous procedures, carefully examining a body of evidence, including a comprehensive analysis of mission data for each attack.”

An aerial view shows the Tigris River and destroyed buildings in Mosul's war-ravaged old town.  Islamic State fighters in battle for the city.

An aerial view shows the Tigris River and destroyed buildings in Mosul’s war-torn old town, which was badly damaged by Islamic State fighters. Photo: Zaid al-Obeidi/AFP/Getty Images

The coalition also accepted the killing of two civilians in another attack in Mosul on January 9, 2017, which was confirmed as an RAF operation. Britain accepts carrying out this attack but denies civilian casualties and says the dead were militants.

The new findings are likely to increase pressure on British authorities over their opaque policy on assessing civilian casualties.

The 2016 Chilcot Report on the UK’s role in the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq found that the UK had not done enough to locate civilians killed and injured. Their recommendations included improving this, saying that “a government has a responsibility to make every reasonable effort to understand the likely and actual impact of its military actions on civilian populations.”

But by the next British campaign in Iraq, Britain was no longer transparent. The government has refused to give details of how it assesses the reported victims, despite requests from MPs.

The UK began bombing Iraq again in 2014 as part of the Operation Inherent Resolve coalition targeting IS fighters. Strikes in Syria began a year later. Between 2014 and 2020, it dropped more than 4,000 ammunition across the two countries.

The British military claims these attacks have killed 3,052 militants in Iraq without causing a single civilian death. According to the United Kingdom, 1,017 militants and one civilian were killed in Syria.


The US-led coalition, which included Britain, said airstrikes by its members killed 1,437 civilians during that period, but did not break down which countries were responsible.

Even former British military officials said the British position was unconvincing. Greg Bagwell, a retired Air Marshal, told the Guardian that Britain has some of the best systems in the world for protecting civilians, but the current position that Britain has not made any misses is “a stretch”.

“If we said we were 90% better than everyone else [at protecting civilians] that could be a credible argument. If you keep saying the number is zero and therefore we’re 100% perfect, it clearly becomes difficult to sell that,” he said.

In 2018, a senior coalition source told the BBC that British officials had been told on numerous occasions that their strikes may have killed civilians and that “to claim they hadn’t… nonsense”.

To examine what deaths may have been caused by British airstrikes, the Guardian and Airwars combed through public statements and information from both sides of the Atlantic, including 1,300 coalition documents detailing individual cases of civilian casualties reported by the US military in December Released in 2021 after serving a prison sentence, according to a request for information from the New York Times.

These have been cross-checked with regular updates from the Ministry of Defense on strikes and the dates and locations of all attacks in which the British military have claimed to have killed or injured IS fighters, which Airwars have released after requests for information.

It identified 43 airstrikes that resulted in civilian casualties, with details indicating British involvement. These were further narrowed down by looking at information such as target types, ammunition and specific location to create a shortlist of eight attacks. The Guardian and Airwars then traveled to Mosul to search for survivors.

This is far from a comprehensive account of potential British casualties in Mosul, but it raises serious questions about the government’s position. Britain insists its secrecy about civilian casualties is to protect the military, but its allies have been more outspoken.

“There is no argument why, if the US can disclose this information, the UK cannot disclose it either,” says Jen Gibson, a longtime campaigner for military transparency and former head of extrajudicial killings at Reprieve.

Even if Britain eventually accepts responsibility for the killings, survivors are unlikely to be able to claim compensation. A law passed in 2021 provides a six-year statute of limitations for claims for damages; this period has already expired.


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