American military commanders are conducting multiple investigations into a series of airstrikes in Iraq and Syria over the past two weeks that allegedly caused dozens – if not hundreds – of civilian casualties.
The rash of new reports of civilian deaths in the U.S.-led air war on the Islamic State comes at a time of intensifying air strikes as the battle for Mosul rages, and U.S.-backed militias move closer to Raqqa to assault the Islamic State’s de facto capital. In recent months, American commanders on the ground have also been given more more freedom to operate, and can make the decision to launch strikes without the blessing of the White House, as was often the case under the more restrictive Obama administration.
The largest of the strikes occurred on March 17 in Mosul, Iraq, where Iraqi forces battling ISIS militants in the densely-packed western half of the city called in a strike on what they had identified as an ISIS position. U.S. officials have confirmed that their aircraft struck in the vicinity of the building, which photos and video posted to social media shows has since collapsed, allegedly killing as many as 200 civilians.
American investigators are currently poring over hundreds of hours of combat footage of airstrikes in Mosul around the date of the strike, to determine if the building was hit by U.S aircraft, said Col. John Thomas, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command.
On Sunday, the Iraqi military claimed that the targeted building had been booby-trapped by the Islamic State, saying their troops has found no evidence of a coalition strike. At least 160 bodies have been pulled from the rubble, locals said.
If confirmed, the Mosul strike would be the deadliest incident for U.S. forces since entering the conflict against ISIS in 2014. The Pentagon has admitted killing 220 civilians in all since the campaign against ISIS began in 2014, though activist groups say hundreds more have been killed.
Around 200,000 people have managed to escape the fighting in Western Mosul in recent weeks, but it is estimated that as many as half a million are still trapped inside the city, caught in the midst of by the fierce, house-by-house fighting between government forces and the militants. At the outset of the Mosul campaign, the government in Baghdad asked citizens to stay in their homes and not flee to overcrowded refugee camps, a decision that how has placed hundreds of thousands directly in harm’s way.
Speaking Monday at the Pentagon before a meeting with Qatar’s defense minister, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said U.S. and coalition forces “are keenly aware” that the Islamic State uses civilians as human shields. But, he said, “we go out of our way to always do everything humanly possible to reduce the loss of life or injury among innocent people. The same cannot be said for our adversaries.”
The coalition has already kicked off a “credibility assessment” to determine the validity of the allegation of the Mosul strike. The review usually takes a several weeks to complete, military officials said.
The American military command is also looking at an airstrike in al-Jinah, Syria on March 17 that killed dozens. U.S. military officials acknowledge making the strike, but say it was a successful attack on an al Qaeda meeting. Videos circulating on social media show a bombed-out building attached to a mosque in the town, but those videos don’t correlate with surveillance images taken after the strike, U.S. officials have said.
A spokesman for the U.S. military command in Baghdad told FP on Monday that the coalition is “unable to investigate all reports of possible civilian casualties using traditional investigative methods,” like on the ground interviews and site examinations. He said if officials find the Mosul allegations credible, they’ll launch a more formal investigation to determine if any U.S. personnel bear responsibility.
But even with the drumbeat of reports about civilian casualties, the U.S. military is not yet planning on making any changes to the way it carries out attacks.
Col. John Thomas, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, told reporters on Monday that U.S. Central Command head Gen. Joseph Votel “is not looking into changing the way we operate other than to say our processes are good and we want to make sure we live by those processes.”
Photo Credit: ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images