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Survivors Describe Devastation After U.S. Airstrike On Mosul

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's hear from survivors of a U.S. air strike in Mosul, Iraq, last month. U.S. and Iraqi forces want to push ISIS out of that city. That is why the United States conducted an air strike that is now blamed for the deaths of 150 civilians. The Pentagon is asking if ISIS explosives also went off during that incident on March 17. Survivors told their stories to NPR's Jane Arraf.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Hawra is a little girl in a large hospital bed. She's been calling for her mother for three weeks.

HAWRA: Mama, mama...

ALIYA ALI: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: Her grandmother, Aliya Ali, tells her her mother is in Mosul getting treatment, but she's not. "I'll tell you honestly, we lie to," her grandmother tells me. Hawra is only 4, too young to be told that her mother was killed.

A U.S. air strike requested by Iraqi forces was targeting ISIS. But almost all the victims were families. The survivors say, as ISIS was pushed out of some areas it forced civilians to retreat with them. Hawra and her family had crowded into relatives houses on the frontlines.

ALI: (Through interpreter) We were five families in the house. When we saw the heavy fighting we wanted to move again, but ISIS didn't let us leave. They shot at us in the street.

ARRAF: So they went back in the houses - 30 and 40 people packed into some of them - and waited. The Iraqi government had told people to stay inside and wait for Iraqi forces to liberate their neighborhoods.

ALA HASSAN: (Through interpreter) At 8, 8:30 in the morning they were striking our area. They hit twice.

ARRAF: That's Hawra's father, Ala' Hassan. His wife and daughter were in a house two doors down that was badly hit.

HASSAN: (Through interpreter) I ran without thinking. And I found Hawra under chunks of concrete moaning.

ARRAF: The blast had thrown her through a window into the neighbor's yard. She was bleeding and burned, shards of glass were in her eyes. Her mother was trapped under the concrete for three days before she died.

HASSAN: (Through interpreter) I tried to go and get her out but there was gunfire, and I couldn't - more than once, I tried to help her.

ARRAF: When the fighting finally let up he carried his daughter and ran with other survivors through the streets past explosions before they reached the safety of the army.

Now in the hospital, Hawra rubs her leg where her plastic boot melted into her skin. Her face is cut, and she can't open her eyes. She needs an operation to be able to see again. Her burned hair is still just stubble, but she tries on a new pink hat. Urged by her grandmother, she thanks her father for it.

ALI: (Speaking Arabic).

HAWRA: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: Hassan is 26 - a photographer before ISIS shut down his shop. He says there were only a few ISIS fighters in the neighborhood and asks why the military dropped bombs instead of firing from helicopters.

HASSAN: (Through interpreter) It seems as if the Iraqi government wants to annihilate the people of Mosul. ISIS didn't kill us like this.

ARRAF: Nearby in the same hospital, the story of another wounded man shows the scale of the tragedy. Ali Thanoun was trapped in the rubble of a collapsed house for five days. One of his legs was crushed, and his arms are bandaged.

MUBASHIR: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: His brother Mubashir dug him out. He wants to talk in the hallway where Ali can't hear. Ali doesn't know yet. He lost his entire family.

MUBASHIR: (Through interpreter) His two wives died. His three sons died. His four daughters died.

ARRAF: All together 31 people in the house were killed. Mubashir says no one from the Iraqi government or military has come to offer help or even condolences.

Down the hall, Abdullah Khalil Ibrahim has just had his leg amputated, but he considers himself lucky.

ABDULLAH KHALIL IBRAHIM: (Through interpreter) I lost part of my body, but thank God my children are OK.

ARRAF: He's not expecting a lot of help from the Iraqi government. They will just say this is war, he says. Jane Arraf, NPR News, Erbil. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.