Today's WorldView: The innocent li ves lost amid Trump’s war on terror

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Airstrikes are ramping up in Iraq and Syria, and the civilian death toll is rising with them. | Sponsored by Morgan Stanley
Monday, March 27, 2017 

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Though the incident is still shrouded in confusion, reports over the weekend indicated that the United States launched an airstrike on the Iraqi city of Mosul that may have killed more than 100 people.

U.S. officials have confirmed that the coalition conducted the attack March 17 over the crowded neighborhood of Mosul al-Jadida, located near the front lines of the Iraqi-led offensive against the city's Islamic State occupiers. The U.S. military and Iraqi authorities have both launched formal investigations into the incident. "If confirmed," my colleagues reported, "the March 17 incident would mark the greatest loss of civilian life since the United States began strikes on Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria in 2014."

"We felt the earth shaking as if it was an earthquake. It was an airstrike that targeted my street. Dust, shattered glass and powder were the only things my wife, myself and three kids were feeling," said one Jadida resident to Reuters. "We heard screams and loud crying coming from the house next door. After the bombing stopped, I went out with some neighbors and found that some houses on my street were leveled."

The news from Mosul comes on the heels of another recently opened investigation into a U.S. airstrike, this one on an al-Qaeda target in northern Syria. That strike may have killed dozens of civilians seeking sanctuary in a nearby mosque. (Few in America would know about it: The official inquiry into the Syria strike was reported on the same day global media gave blanket coverage to a terror attack in London that killed five people.)

Airwars, a British-based nonprofit that monitors casualties in Iraq and Syria, believes that more than 1,000 civilians in both countries were killed by coalition airstrikes this month alone.

Analysts think this surge in deaths may be a product of a shift in the anti-Islamic State campaign under President Trump, who has called for more unfettered action against the jihadists and memorably promised to "bomb the s--- out of 'em." The first key anti-terror operation under Trump's watch was a raid in Yemen that also likely resulted in dozens of civilian deaths.

"While the Obama administration acknowledged that its military operations resulted in a number of civilian casualty incidents in Iraq and Syria and elsewhere, the tightly spaced series of recent allegations is striking," wrote The Post's Loveday Morris and Missy Ryan. "Operations against Islamic State strongholds have reached a new, more intense phase in Mosul, where local forces are battling militants in heavily populated neighborhoods, and in Syria, where the United States is seeking to deal a decisive blow to several militant groups."

The details of what took place March 17 remain difficult to confirm. As more than 100 bodies were pulled from the rubble over the weekend — a full week after the strike — Iraqi authorities offered conflicting accounts of the attack. The Iraqi military's joint command claimed the deaths were caused by an Islamic State car bomb that collapsed houses sheltering dozens of people. But Mosul's civil defense chief, Brig. Gen. Mohammed Mahmoud, insisted to my colleagues that, among other pieces of evidence, the absence of a crater in the road — a telltale sign of a car bombing — suggested a missile strike.

Of course, there's nothing new about Iraqi civilians dying in American airstrikes — the country has been the target of U.S. military operations for decades. But Trump's aggressive approach seems a poor fit for the complexity of the current fight. The Trump administration is reportedly seeking ways to bypass Obama-era operational constraints meant to prevent civilian deaths. An Iraqi special forces officer, speaking anonymously to the New York Times, said there has been a clear relaxation of the rules of engagement since Trump took office. That claim was denied by a Pentagon spokesman.

Whatever the case, Mosul's beleaguered civilians are now trapped between a vicious militant group that's clinging onto the city with a hideous array of tactics and an Iraqi- and U.S.-led offensive that is also putting them in harm's way.

"The repeated mistakes will make the mission to liberate Mosul from [the Islamic State] harder, and will push civilians still living under [the Islamic State] to be uncooperative with the security forces," said Abdulsattar Alhabu, the mayor of Mosul, to the New York Times. And there's an even greater risk of such collateral damage as the fight inches into the older and more crowded western areas of the city.

A man yells to the skies after he found his loved ones dead in the rubble of a destroyed home in the Mosul al-Jadida neighborhood on March 14. (Photo by Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images)

Trump's stated focus on a military solution also obscures the trickier battle that will remain even after Mosul is fully liberated: reconciling Mosul's embittered and traumatized majority Sunni population with Iraq's Shiite-dominated government. Otherwise, a new version of the fundamentalist outfit could find a foothold.

"Success in Iraq is still possible but requires President Trump to reintroduce nonmilitary considerations into the campaign plan and accept that a big military victory is insufficient to attain long-term national security objectives," concluded a new report from the Institute of the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank that has been assiduously tracking the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.

In the meantime, the dead are still being counted in Mosul. On Friday, my colleagues came across Saban Ahmed Ibrahim, a resident who claimed to have lost his relatives, including two young children, in the airstrike. He was still waiting for their bodies to be recovered.

"I blame everyone,” he told the Post. "I still have God and I trust that he will take his revenge."

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• On Sunday, unsanctioned anti-corruption protests took place in dozens of cities across Russia. They were spurred by calls from opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was reacting to recent allegations that close associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin had amassed vast illicit wealth.

“Too angry to be cowed, they poured into the street, fed up with their country’s wide-reaching corruption and a government unwilling, or unable, to stop it,” wrote the Post’s Moscow bureau chief, David Filipov. Police arrested hundreds of people across the country, and Navalny was among those detained.

When a similar round of protests took place in 2011 and 2012, Putin could blame the U.S. for meddling. This time there is no such option. The Trump administration, under scrutiny for its alleged contacts with the Kremlin, was conspicuously silent and did not issue the sort of routine defense of human rights and freedoms abroad that its predecessors would have.

Filipov offers more context on the protests below.

• Hong Kong, a former British colony and a special administrative region of China, has a new appointed leader: Carrie Lam, a Beijing loyalist who is expected to toe the central government’s line even as a restive metropolis calls for greater democratic reforms. Lam was voted in as Hong Kong’s next chief executive by a committee dominated by pro-China electors.

“Though a Chinese official said Sunday that Lam ‘had the support’ of Hong Kong’s people, her victory over a popular opponent will almost certainly deepen fear about Beijing’s tightening grip on the Chinese special administrative region and compound frustration that the fight for universal suffrage has stalled,” wrote my colleague Emily Rauhala.

“This is a selection, not an election,” said Joshua Wong, a former student leader who headed 2014 pro-democracy protests. “Carrie Lam will be a nightmare for us.”

• German Chancellor Angela Merkel got a political boost after her Christian Democrats triumphed in a state election seen as a bellwether for Germany’s political future. The center-right party won more than 40 percent of the vote in the southwestern state of Saarland, pulling comfortably ahead of the center-left Social Democrats, who won close to 30 percent but weren’t able to narrow the gap close enough to take power through a left-wing coalition.

Germany votes in national elections in September, with the resurgent Social Democrats providing Merkel with a genuine contest. They are currently neck-and-neck in the polls and their battle is overshadowing the challenge Merkel also faces from the far right. A columnist in the Financial Times sees the recent gains of the center-left in both Germany and France as the key opportunity for the European project to be “saved."

• In the U.S., the fallout over Trump’s healthcare debacle deepened. The first defection from the Freedom Caucus, the group of hardline House Republican lawmakers who opposed Trump’s plan to repeal and replace Obamacare, took place on Sunday when Rep. Ted Poe of Texas quit the group. The Freedom Caucus faced a chorus of recrimination from other Republicans who backed the bill. Meanwhile, conservatives in other corners — including, it seems, Trump’s own proxies — demanded the resignation of House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), who championed the failed American Health Care Act and could not whip up enough support to push it through the House.

Critics argue that the bill failed not simply because of poor politics, but poor policy — “the bill was a dumpster fire,” declared an op-ed in Politico, which was reviled by both conservative and liberal think tanks and would have caused irreparable harm to Trump’s populist message.


Human skulls believed to be from victims of combat between the Congolese army and the Kamuina Nsapu militia in Kasai province on March 12. (Aaron Ross/Reuters)

Out of sight, out of mind

The Democratic Republic of Congo is certainly in the running for the country with the most armed groups in the world. For two decades, dozens of wars have raged across this enormous central African nation, which is roughly equal in size to all of the United States east of the Mississippi River. 

The root causes of each conflict vary, but all operate in the vacuum left by the state. Most of the D.R.C. is essentially lawless, and there is an almost total lack of public infrastructure.

In the Western press, we rarely read about the constant war in the D.R.C. In fact, we rarely read about the country at all except for the occasional deep dive into its mines, from whence exploited workers extract the rare-earth minerals essential to powering our modern cornucopia of electronics.

It takes a particularly heinous set of killings to bring the country to our attention — or a kidnapped American.

This month provided both of those events. On March 12, an American investigator working for the United Nation was kidnapped — along with a Swedish colleague and four Congolese associates — in an increasingly restive region called Kasai.

The violence they were monitoring is between the poorly trained and barely paid state military and a cultish tribal militia known as Kamuina Nsapu. The militia’s founder was killed by the military in August. Since then, 400 people have died and more than 200,000 others have fled their homes amid ramped-up fighting.

On Friday, militiamen ambushed a police convoy and beheaded 42 officers. Six were spared, apparently because they were from the same Luba ethnic group as their attackers. No Luba — nor anyone who hails from the Kasai region — has ever had a leading role in Congo’s government. With violence spiraling, Kamuina Nsapu may now be the biggest threat to the Congolese government.

Yet, as in so many of Congo’s conflicts, the “rebels” have no solution to the country’s endemic chaos. They rape, loot, and force children into the fighting. They offer only more misery. — Max Bearak


Russian riot policemen detain an anti-corruption demonstrator during a rally in Moscow on March 26. (Maxim Shipenkov/EPA)

The big question

On Sunday, Russia saw the largest and most widespread protests against Vladimir Putin’s government in years. Defying official warnings not to hold any demonstrations, protesters held anti-corruption rallies across the country — and police responded with barricades, tear gas and mass arrests. In Moscow alone, 700 people were taken to jail, including opposition leader Alexey Navalny. So we asked David Filipov, the Post's Moscow bureau chief: Do these protests signal the start of a larger movement?

"Before we can answer that, consider this. If tens of thousands of people show up at unsanctioned rallies to express their anger about corruption and state-run TV doesn’t mention it, did it really happen?

"Yes and no. Most Russians get their news from the television. They will see none of the riveting footage of their compatriots, young and old, shouting out 'We want answers!' and 'Shame!' But the Russian Internet was aflood with photos and videos of the rallies. One riot policeman in a prime spot at the barricades told me he’d been photographed 'thousands of times.'

"This speaks to the parallel universes of Russian information. The architect of the demonstrations, Alexei Navalny, called on people to come out after publishing a report that alleges that Putin’s prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, has amassed a fortune in luxury yachts, estates and vineyards.

"That report received almost no coverage in state-controlled media, and the government barely commented on it. Just to be certain, authorities banned rallies in most of the 100 cities where they were planned, and state media barely mentioned Navalny’s name in the week before Sunday.

"But more than 10 million people watched the YouTube video in which Navalny goes through the highlights; 4 million more watched it on other Russian social media sites. And on Sunday, Navalny's call brought out thousands of people in cities from the Far East to Siberia to the Caucasus to Moscow and St. Petersburg.

"If they did it once, they can do it again.

"On the other hand, Putin cracked down hard on demonstrations in 2011 and 2012, the last time people came out in such numbers. And with presidential elections approaching, it’s hard to imagine he won’t do that again, either."


Europe's leaders gathered in Rome this weekend to mark the 60th anniversary of the treaty that launched the unity project that later became the European Union. But what future is there for the bloc? Former diplomat Carl Bildt lays out the big challenges ahead, while the Guardian suggests a path for a rebrand. Meanwhile, Britain is preparing to formally declare its E.U. exit this week, and the continent is examining what's to come both in Brexit negotiations and how to read the tea leaves on what the U.K.-E.U. relationship may look like after the split.

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There was plenty to discuss about conservative American news this weekend. Alex Jones, a radio host and owner of the alt-right website Infowars, apologized for his role in propagating “Pizzagate,” a fake news story about a child-sex trafficking ring supposedly operating out of a D.C. pizzeria. Meanwhile, Tomi Lahren, a popular talk show host on right-wing news network TheBlaze, stood strong behind her recent pro-choice comments and was permanently banned from the outlet. As far as bigger right-wing is concerned, the New York Times chronicled a day at Fox News, arguably the most influential conservative news network of them all.

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The reported banning comes after Lahren, 24, was criticized in some conservative circles following a March 17 appearance on ABC’s "The View" in which she revealed that she supports abortion rights.
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Gazans are no strangers to border closures. The Gaza Strip's border crossing into Egypt is all but permanently shut, and Israel occasionally closes down its own checkpoints into the tiny territory. But Sunday brought a first: Hamas, which rules Gaza, shut down the main crossing into Israel after one of its military operatives was killed over the weekend. The move left Palestinians stranded at the checkpoint and further ratcheted up the mounting tenstion between Hamas and Israel, perhaps portending yet another war between the two. (Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images)

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The president’s attack serves as a warning shot that he will not hesitate to apply public pressure on those in his party he views as standing in the way.
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