The U.S. military is reviewing more than 700 videos of bombs it dropped on the Iraqi city of Mosul after hundreds of civilians died in U.S.-led airstrikes in the campaign to retake the city from the Islamic State.
Local reports say that as many as 200 civilians, including women and children, were killed in a March 17 airstrike that struck buildings where they were hiding during bloody street-to-street battles.
If the deaths are found to be a result of the airstrike, it would be one of the deadliest coalition attacks on civilians in recent history.
“We are not jumping to any conclusions,” Col. John Thomas, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, said at the Pentagon on Monday, speaking from Central Command headquarters in Florida. “We are looking at getting ground truth. It’s our highest priority.”
We are keenly aware that every battlefield where an enemy hides between women and children is also a humanitarian (shield).
Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis
The hundreds of videos span a 10-day period. Central Command said the assessment would be the top priority for investigators for two to three weeks. If there is sufficient evidence, a formal investigation will be launched.
“We know that we were dropping bombs in the immediate vicinity, if not on specific buildings that have made it into the (reports),” Thomas said. “Our weapons are quite precise . . . so we have to look at what we actually struck.”
Iraqi Vice President Osama Nujaifi has called for an immediate investigation into the impact of the Mosul airstrikes, which he called a “humanitarian disaster.” The United Nations said last week that it was “profoundly concerned” about the reported civilian deaths in Mosul.
“We are stunned by this terrible loss of life,” Lise Grande, the U.N.’s humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, said in a statement Friday. “International humanitarian law is clear. Parties to the conflict – all parties – are obliged to do everything possible to protect civilians.”
Mosul, the Islamic State’s stronghold in northern Iraq, is the country’s second largest city and has been under the terrorist group’s control since 2014.
Word of the investigation came as the Pentagon announced that it was dispatching more U.S. troops from the 82nd Airborne Division to Mosul to assist Iraqi forces as the battle intensifies.
Pentagon officials declined to say how many additional troops were being deployed, saying only that an “unspecified number” were being sent from the division’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team, based at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. They will join 1,700 troops from the same brigade combat team who were deployed in November for nine months to support the anti-Islamic State campaign.
200,000 Civilians displaced by the fighting in Mosul since October
Fighting in Mosul has intensified as the battle has moved into more densely populated areas in the city’s west, where Islamic State militants are using homes as cover. More than 200,000 civilians have fled the city since the offensive began in October, according to the Switzerland-based International Organization for Migration. Thousands more are trapped in the fighting.
Thomas said the military was examining “intriguing information of secondary explosions,” a possible indication that a large number of civilian casualties were due to causes other than a U.S. airstrike itself: possible Islamic State booby traps, perhaps the explosion of an Islamic State truck bomb after it was hit by a U.S.-launched munition or possibly buildings collapsing because of the blasts.
The Iraqi military denied Sunday that U.S. airstrikes had caused the massive civilian casualties, saying in a statement that military experts dispatched to the scene had found no signs of an air attack. Instead, they found that the walls of the houses where families had been hiding were booby-trapped. The Iraqi military said a detonator had been found nearby.
The Iraqis said 61 bodies had been pulled from the rubble and that 25 women and children had been rescued alive.
The U.S. military currently does not have access to the affected location but expects to be able to arrive there soon, Thomas said, once fighting subsides.
“We are looking to get folks on the ground combined with the Iraqi reports to help us understand the situation,” he said.
Thomas said that while the military was prioritizing the civilian casualty assessment in Mosul, it was facing a “resource constraint” since there were “only so many people who really have the expertise” to assess the impact of the airstrikes. Investigators are digging through a large volume of video feeds, as well as U.S. intelligence, surveillance, news reports, social media and Iraqi data, and the assessment requires specialized experts from forensic analysis and law to munitions, he said.
“We don’t just have ad hoc people who are not trained and who have experience looking at these things,” he said. “You can’t just grab some new soldiers, bring them in and have them look at it.”
During his campaign, President Donald Trump promised to ramp up the fight against the Islamic State, which he pledged in his inaugural address to “eradicate completely from the face of the Earth.”
International humanitarian law is clear. Parties to the conflict — all parties — are obliged to do everything possible to protect civilians.
Lise Grande, U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Iraq
Despite the increasing reports of civilian casualties in U.S. strikes, the Pentagon said it was not reassessing how it carried them out.
“Our goal has always been for zero civilian casualties,” U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Middle East, said in a statement Saturday. “But the coalition will not abandon our commitment to our Iraqi partners because of ISIS’s inhuman tactics terrorizing civilians (and) using human shields.”
The new civilian casualty assessment comes as the Pentagon is also moving toward opening an official investigation into a March 17 airstrike that it says targeted al Qaida militants in northern Syria. Local reports allege the airstrike struck a crowded mosque during evening prayers, killing dozens of civilians.
The U.S. military has always emphasized its precision in limiting civilian casualties as much as possible.
“There is no military force in the world that has proven more sensitive to civilian casualties,” Secretary of Defense James Mattis said Monday during a meeting with his Qatari counterpart. “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 of our adversaries.”
The U.S.-led coalition that’s fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has killed 220 civilians since operations began in 2014, according to the latest estimate from the Department of Defense, released earlier this month. Monitoring groups say the number is much higher. Airwars, an independent Britain-based group, says that at least 2,462 civilians have been killed in these strikes.