Battle over bodies rages quietly in Iraq's Mosul long after Islamic State defeat

MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) - The Iraqis who have come home to Mosul's Old City knew it would be hard living in the rubble left by the battle against Islamic State, but there is one aspect of their surroundings they are finding unbearable seven months on.

"I don’t want my children to have to walk past dead bodies in the street every day," said Abdelrazaq Abdullah, back with his wife and three children in the quarter where the militants made their last stand in July against Iraqi and U.S.-led coalition forces.

"We can live without electricity, but we need the government to clear the corpses – they're spreading disease and reminding us of the horrors we've just lived through."

The stench of death wafts from rubble-filled corners in the dystopian wasteland of what was once West Mosul, from rusting cars still rigged with explosives and from homes abandoned as those who could, fled the bloody end of the militants three-year rule.

The corpses lying in the open on many streets are mainly militants from the extremist Sunni group who retreated to the densely-packed buildings of the Old City, where only the most desperate 5,000 of a pre-war population of 200,000 have so far returned.

13 PHOTOS
Bodies are piling up among the ruins of Mosul
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Bodies are piling up among the ruins of Mosul
Iraqi men cover their noses as they check a site in the city of Mosul where bodies of alleged Islamic State group jihadists remain on January 11, 2018. For three years, jihadists made life in Iraq's Mosul impossible. Now, six months after their defeat, even their corpses are polluting everyone's existence as no one wants to move them. Amid the rubble-strewn alleys overlooking the River Tigris, unburied human remains are rotting. / AFP PHOTO / Ahmad MUWAFAQ (Photo credit should read AHMAD MUWAFAQ/AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi men check a site in the city of Mosul where bodies of alleged Islamic State group jihadists remain on January 11, 2018. For three years, jihadists made life in Iraq's Mosul impossible. Now, six months after their defeat, even their corpses are polluting everyone's existence as no one wants to move them. Amid the rubble-strewn alleys overlooking the River Tigris, unburied human remains are rotting. / AFP PHOTO / Ahmad MUWAFAQ (Photo credit should read AHMAD MUWAFAQ/AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi civil defence and rescue workers search for the bodies of victims under the rubble of buildings in western Mosul's Zanjili district on July 26, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / SAFIN HAMED (Photo credit should read SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)
MOSUL, IRAQ, AUGUST 12: As recovery workers dug for bodies last week, a member of the civil defense team tasked with security searches the area after hearing noises inside a house. Some Islamic State militants are still believed to be hiding in houses or tunnels in the Old City. (Photo by Alice Martins for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Iraqis check the remains of the bodies of victims found under the rubble of buildings in western Mosul's Zanjili district on July 26, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / SAFIN HAMED (Photo credit should read SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi women walk to identify the bodies of members of their families found under the rubble of buildings in western Mosul's Zanjili district on July 26, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / SAFIN HAMED (Photo credit should read SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi civil defence and rescue workers search for the bodies of victims under the rubble of buildings in western Mosul's Zanjili district on July 26, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / SAFIN HAMED (Photo credit should read SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi civil defence and rescue workers rest as they search for the bodies of victims under the rubble of buildings in western Mosul's Zanjili district on July 26, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / SAFIN HAMED (Photo credit should read SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - Iraqi civil defence and rescue workers search for the bodies of victims under the rubble of buildings in western Mosul's Zanjili district on July 26, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / SAFIN HAMED (Photo credit should read SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken on July 26, 2017 shows a child's shoe in the rubble as Iraqi civil defence search and rescue workers search for the bodies of victims under the remains of buildings in western Mosul's Zanjili district on July 26, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / SAFIN HAMED (Photo credit should read SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)
MOSUL, IRAQ - JULY 22: Iraqi Civil Defence workers recover the bodies of dead civilians from the destroyed Old City district on July 22, 2017 in Mosul, Iraq. (Photo by Martyn Aim/Corbis via Getty Images)
A picture shows a general view of the damage in the old city of Mosul on July 7, 2017, as Iraqi government forces continue to fight Islamic State (IS) group jihadists to retake the last parts of the city. The decaying bodies of foreign jihadists are piling up among the ruins of Mosul where the last dozens of Islamic State group fighters are mounting a desperate last stand. / AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)
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Local residents and officials in predominantly Sunni Mosul say there are also thousands of civilian bodies yet to be retrieved from the ruins, a view which has put them at odds with the Shi'ite-led government in Baghdad.

"There are no more civilian bodies to be picked up in Mosul," said Brig Gen Mohammad Mahmoud, the head of Mosul's Civil Defence, first responders who report to the Interior Ministry and are tasked with collecting them and issuing death certificates.

The Civil Defence says it had collected 2,585 civilian bodies by mid-January – many of them still unidentified - and has completed operations. It does not want to waste resources on the militants.

“Why should we have to give terrorists a proper burial?” Mahmoud said.

The standoff over the dead threatens to stoke the anger of a population already beaten down by a grueling war and the militants' draconian rule in a place where Islamic State initially found some sympathy. The final civilian death toll is also a highly sensitive political issue in Iraq and beyond.

COMMON GRAVES

The municipal government has had to set up its own specialized team to field requests filed by city residents to find more than 9,000 missing people, most of them last seen in the Old City and assumed to be buried under the rubble.

The team is working through a backlog of 300 bodies, dispatching groups to collect them when it can. But these are just the ones where exact coordinates have been given by neighbors, family members or passers-by who saw the bodies.

"We don’t know how many more are under the rubble," said Duraid Hazim Mohammed, the head of the municipal team. "If the family or a witness who saw the people die doesn’t call us to tell us exactly how many bodies are at a site, we have no way of knowing if one, five or 100 bodies are buried there."

Locals say common graves were dug as the battle raged. In the courtyard of Um al-Tisaa mosque in the Old City, they say 100 of their neighbors were buried in groups of shallow graves.

33 PHOTOS
A timeline of the battle for Mosul
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A timeline of the battle for Mosul
A Kurdish Peshmerga fighter looks over as he stands on the top of a humvee in front of an Islamic State militants' position outside the town of Naweran near Mosul, Iraq October 20, 2016. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Newly displaced people wait to receive food supplies at a processing center for displaced people In Qayyara, south of Mosul, Iraq October 21, 2016. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Smoke rises at Islamic State militants' positions in the town of Naweran, near Mosul, Iraq, October 23, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
An Iraqi soldier stands next to a detained man accused of being an Islamic State fighter at a check point in Qayyara, south of Mosul, Iraq October 30, 2016. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
An Iraqi father (L) mourns the death of his son, who was killed during clashes in the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul, in al-Samah neighborhood, Iraq December 1, 2016. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
People run in panic after a coalition airstrike hit Islamic State fighters positions in Mosul, Iraq, November 17, 2016. Goran Tomasevic: 'I had been to the Tahrir district of eastern Mosul several times while covering the campaign by Iraqi forces backed by U.S.-led air strikes to retake the city from Islamic State militants. Covering battles is tough and in this case, it was difficult to get to the frontline at times, but on this day we managed. When we arrived it seemed calm and quiet. Soon after a car blew up in a suicide bombing in an Islamic State counter-attack to the forces' push into Mosul. There were casualties, children screaming, and several nearby houses were destroyed. There were also clashes. I have covered many conflicts in my career, but what has struck me in Mosul is the number of car bombings. The fighting comes in waves and when things eventually quietened down, I saw a group of civilians making the most of a break in gunfire to come out onto the streets. They were both young and elderly, and felt safe enough to leave their homes with few belongings, walking carefully but calmly towards where I was standing capturing the scenes around me. Suddenly an air strike targeted Islamic State positions a few hundred metres away behind them. It was close and total panic ensued. People were screaming, ducking and running away as the plumes of smoke rose nearby. They quickly ran for whatever shelter they could find. I heard the plane just before the airstrike, and from experience knew I had little time. These things happen fast and you have to act quickly. First you have to make sure you are safe, then stay focused so you can get the shot. You get your lens ready and stay calm. It was one airstrike and residents waited it out before finding other shelter. I eventually moved to another location to continue covering the fighting.' REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY SEARCH "2016 PIX" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A member of Iraqi rapid response forces holds a flower during battle with Islamic State militants in the Mithaq district of eastern Mosul, Iraq, January 4, 2017. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Displaced people, who fled Islamic State militants, cross the bridge in Al-Muthanna neighborhood of Mosul, Iraq, January 15, 2017. REUTERS/Ahmed Saad TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
American army personnel gather at the University of Mosul during a battle with Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, January 18, 2017. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A displaced Iraqi boy holds a white flag as his family flees during the battle between Iraqi rapid response forces and Islamic State militants at Tigris river frontline between east and west of Mosul , Iraq, January 25, 2017. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
An Iraqi Special Forces soldier moves through a hole as he searches for Islamic State fighters in Mosul, Iraq February 27, 2017 REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
People who are trying to escape from Mosul walk in front of an Islamic State fighter, Iraq February 28, 2017. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic
A woman gestures as she approaches Iraqi special forces soldiers during a battle in Mosul, Iraq March 1, 2017 REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
An Iraqi special forces soldier fires at a drone operated by Islamic State militants Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, March 4, 2017. Picture taken March 4, 2017. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Islamic State slogans painted along the walls of the tunnel was used by Islamic State militants as an underground training camp in the hillside overlooking Mosul, Iraq, March 4, 2017. Picture taken March 4, 2017. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani
A man cries as he carries his daughter while walking from an Islamic State-controlled part of Mosul towards Iraqi special forces soldiers during a battle in Mosul, Iraq March 4, 2017. Reuters Photographer Goran Tomasevic: "Both screaming in terror, a father and the young daughter he cradled in his arm fled through the rubble-strewn streets of Wadi Hajar, transformed in a flash into a battleground between Islamic State fighters and Iraqi special forces. They and their neighbours - some wearing rubber sandals, some barefoot - were running from an IS counter-attack in this part of Mosul, dodging gunfire as the militants closed in. When they reached the special forces lines, males were ordered to lift their shirts to prove they weren't suicide bombers. Some had to take off their clothes or show their belts, though not those carrying children. The father was so beside himself, so panicked. It was obvious because he had a short shirt on and was carrying a child that he wasn?t Islamic State. I believe they will both be taken to a refugee camp." REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic SEARCH "TOMASEVIC FATHER" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A displaced Iraqi woman reacts as she waits in a street for a truck to carry her to a safe place, as Iraqi forces battle with Islamic State militants, in western Mosul, Iraq March 8, 2017. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A displaced Iraqi girl cries before entering Hamam al-Alil camp, as Iraqi forces battle with Islamic State militants, south of Mosul, Iraq March 10, 2017. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Iraqi rapid response members fire a missile against Islamic State militants during a battle with the militants in Mosul, Iraq, March 11, 2017. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Smoke rises from clashes near Mosul's Al-Habda minaret at the Grand Mosque, where Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared his caliphate back in 2014, as Iraqi forces battle to drive out Islamic state militants from the western part of Mosul, Iraq, March 17, 2017. REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
People walk in front of the remains of the University of Mosul, which was burned and destroyed during a battle with Islamic State militants, in Mosul, Iraq, April 10, 2017. REUTERS/Marko Djurica
Ameen Mukdad, a violinist from Mosul who lived under ISIS's rule for two and a half years where they destroyed his musical instruments, performs at Nabi Yunus shrine in eastern Mosul, Iraq, April 19, 2017. REUTERS/ Muhammad Hamed
A destroyed room inside an abandoned building is seen in western Mosul, Iraq, April 6, 2017. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares SEARCH "EMPTY CASARES" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
Cartoon characters defaced by Islamic State militants are seen at a children's hospital, in eastern Mosul, Iraq April 26, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui
A members of the Iraqi Federal Police throws a hand grenade during clashes with the Islamic State fighters in western Mosul, Iraq, April 29, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Displaced Iraqis from Mosul wait to cross the Tigris by boat after the bridge has been temporarily closed, at the village of Thibaniya, south of Mosul, Iraq May 3, 2017. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Members of Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) forces look at the positions of Islamic State militants during clashes in western Mosul, Iraq, May 15, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui
A view of a part of western Mosul, Iraq May 29, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
The shadow of a member of the Iraqi Army's 9th Armoured Division is seen as he opens a steel gate to a room used as a cell for men, inside a compound used as a prison by Islamic State militants in July 17 district, in western Mosul, Iraq, June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis SEARCH "KONSTANTINIDIS PRISON" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
Debris fly as smoke rises after an artillery attack on the Islamic State militants' positions by the Iraqi Army in the Shifa neighbourhood during clashes in western Mosul, Iraq June 15, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Members of the Iraqi army drop leaflets over the old city of Mosul, Iraq, June 18, 2017. REUTERS/Ahmed Saad TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
An Iraqi soldier from the 9th Armoured Division gives drops of water to a dehydrated child rescued earlier by soldiers at the frontline, during the ongoing fighting between Iraqi forces and Islamic State militants near the Old City in western Mosul, Iraq, June 13, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro SEARCH "DE CASTRO DEHYDRATED" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
A destroyed al-Hadba minaret at Grand al-Nuri Mosque (L) is pictured through a hole at the Iraqi-held position at the Old City in Mosul, Iraq June 27, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro
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"I buried between 50 and 60 people myself, by hand, as planes flew overhead and bombed the city," resident Mahmoud Karim said.

Several families have since come to excavate the bodies of their relatives, to bury them in proper cemeteries. "But others, we don’t know where their families are," Karim said. Some are dead, while others are among the thousands lingering uneasily in refugee camps or paying high rents elsewhere in the city.

The municipal government in Mosul has not given an exact figure for civilian casualties, but its head, Abdelsattar al-Hibbu, told Reuters it coincided with estimates of 10,000 civilians killed during the battle, based on reports of missing people and information from officials about the dead. The toll includes victims of ground fighting and coalition bombing.

Asked for comment, a U.S. coalition spokesman directed Reuters to publicly available reports of incidents. A tally based on those reports showed that the U.S. military acknowledges 321 deaths based on "credible allegations" in dozens of reports of civilian casualties from coalition air strikes conducted near Mosul.

A further 100 reports of casualties from coalition air strikes near Mosul, each referring either to one or to multiple deaths, were still under investigation, the data showed.

FIGHTERS

While the most visible problem in Mosul is the corpses of fighters left in the streets, residents say they have also found bodies of suspected Islamic State family members in their homes.

The owner of a house in the Old City, who asked Reuters to withhold his name for fear of retaliation from officials, said he had asked the Civil Defence for weeks to come and remove two bodies from the main bedroom of his basement home.

They were badly decomposed but the clothing was clearly that of a woman and child.

“Civil Defence refused, because they say the woman and child are Daesh,” he said using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State. “They said they’re punishing me because they think I supported Daesh.”

The municipality team has collected 348 bodies of militants so far, but there are many more still around. Residents regularly walk by them to collect water from temporary pumps and on one street, young children played not far from two corpses on a doorstep.

Some of the fighters are recognizable from their clothing, some were identified to the government by neighbors, some yet, were found clutching the weapons they used to make their last stand against surrounding Iraqi and coalition forces.

18 PHOTOS
Walking through the abandoned streets of Mosul
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Walking through the abandoned streets of Mosul
Food containers lie on a windowsill of a shop damaged during fighting in western Mosul, Iraq, April 10, 2017. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares
Wires hang in front of a destroyed shop in western Mosul, Iraq, April 6, 2017. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares
A rusted car is seen from inside an abandoned house in western Mosul, Iraq, April 12, 2017. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares
Mechanical parts hang on a wall in an abandoned workshop in western Mosul, Iraq, April 6, 2017. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares
Buildings damaged during fighting are seen on an empty street in western Mosul, Iraq, April 11, 2017. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares
Debris and garbage lie on the ground in front of an entrance of damaged houses in western Mosul, Iraq, April 2, 2017. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares
A destroyed room inside an abandoned building is seen in western Mosul, Iraq, April 6, 2017. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares
Decorations hang on a wall at an abandoned shop in western Mosul, Iraq, April 6, 2017. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares 
Mannequins lie on shelves in an abandoned shop in western Mosul, Iraq, April 6, 2017. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares 
Interior of an empty museum is seen in western Mosul, Iraq, April 2, 2017. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares
Empty cupboards are seen inside an abandoned house in western Mosul, Iraq, April 12, 2017. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares
Stools stand on a table at an empty restaurant in western Mosul, Iraq, April 14, 2017. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares 
A flag of Iraq is seen outside a house on a street controlled by Iraqi Federal Police in western Mosul, Iraq, April 12, 2017. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares
A sink is seen in an abandoned house in western Mosul, Iraq, April 12, 2017. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares
Rugs, a chair and an empty box of ammunition are seen inside a room at a railway station in western Mosul, Iraq, April 10, 2017. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares
A broken window is seen inside an abandoned house in western Mosul, Iraq, April 12, 2017. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares
Rolls of fabric lie on a shelf at an abandoned store in western Mosul, Iraq, April 10, 2017. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares 
A clock hangs on a wall at an abandoned restaurant in western Mosul, Iraq, April 6, 2017. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares 
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The municipal government team’s efforts are hampered by very limited funds. On several days in January, they had to halt operations amid a shortage of gloves, masks and body bags.

Some families have resorted to digging out their dead themselves, like 23-year-old Mustafa Nader, who came back to look for his great-uncle Abdullah Ahmed Hussain.

"We weren’t sure if we would find him here," Nader said of his elderly sculptor uncle, tears in his eyes after an hour of digging unearthed his body. "I thought maybe he could have left or gone to a neighbor's house."

Others still have resorted to drastic measures.

Ayad came back in early January after six months in a refugee camp and found the corpses of three Islamic State fighters rotting in what remained of his living room. "The flies, the smell, the disease," he said. "It was awful."

The municipality team said it would be weeks before they could get to him so Ayad asked a soldier on patrol to look over the bodies and make sure there were no explosives.

Then, Ayad set them on fire.

With most of his money spent on a tarp to cover the gaping hole where his front door once stood, he borrowed $20 from his sister, for bleach to try to erase the traces so his family of ten could move back in.

"The smell still hasn’t fully gone away," he said.

(Additional reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein in Baghdad; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

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