The top U.S. commander in Iraq said Tuesday that “there is a fair chance” that U.S.-led airstrikes were responsible for the deaths of civilians in Mosul, where local reports say more than 200 people were killed.
“I’ll say this, if we did it, and I would say there is a fair chance that we did, it was an unintentional accident of war,” Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve, told reporters.
Townsend said the military is sorting through “a lot of conflicting reports” about what happened on the ground on March 17. The U.S. military knows for certain that its strike hit the same area where there have been reports of mass civilian casualties, he said. Most of the dead were buried in the rubble of collapsed buildings, and the U.S. is still assessing whether its bombing was directly responsible. As part of the probe, it is reviewing more than 700 video feeds of the bombs it dropped on Mosul in a 10-day period.
Eyewitnesses reported dozens of bodies being pulled from the rubble, including those of infants, pregnant women and children.
There is a fair chance that we did it.
Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend
The Iraqi military has said that military experts dispatched to the scene did not find signs of an air attack, but suggested that the walls of the collapsed houses had been booby-trapped, with a detonator found nearby.
The kind of munitions used by the U.S. in this case “should not have collapsed an entire building,” Townsend agreed.
U.S. personnel had arrived at the site to assess the evidence, Townsend said.
Townsend attempted to absolve the U.S. of responsibility for the deaths, say investigatos were trying to determine whether Islamic State militants had “deliberately” lured American aircraft to the location after gathering civilians to hide in the building, or whether the Islamic State had been using the civilians as human shields.
It’s unfortunate, but they’re just stuck in the crossfire.
Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend
“What I don’t know — were they gathered there by the enemy? It sure looks like they were,” he said. “We know that ISIS were fighting from that position, from that building. There were people that you really can’t account for in any other way why they would all be there unless they were forced there.”
Either way, “the enemy had a role in this,” Townsend said several times, insisting that regardless of the role of the U.S., “the moral responsibility” for civilian deaths lies with the terrorist group.
“Our enemy, ISIS, are evil and murderous butchers engaged in purposeful mass slaughter,” he said. “There are countless mass graves surrounding Mosul. ISIS put those bodies in there, not the coalition.”
Amnesty International on Tuesday charged that the U.S.-led coalition is not taking the necessary precautions to avoid civilian casualties in its fight against the Islamic State.
Evidence from the scene in Mosul “points to an alarming pattern of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes which have destroyed whole houses with entire families inside,” the human rights group said.
“The high civilian toll suggests that coalition forces leading the offensive in Mosul have failed to take adequate precautions to prevent civilian deaths, in flagrant violation of international humanitarian law,” senior crisis response adviser Donatella Rovera, who carried out field investigations in Mosul, said on Tuesday.
Civilian deaths from airstrikes have spiked in recent weeks in Iraq and Syria, but the Pentagon has denied that it has loosened the rules of engagement in its fight against the Islamic State.
The high civilian toll suggests that coalition forces leading the offensive in Mosul have failed to take adequate precautions to prevent civilian deaths, in flagrant violation of international humanitarian law.
Townsend said that in Mosul, the higher number of civilian dead reflect the offensive’s moving into the more densely populated, and better defended, old city center. The Islamic State has had two and a half years to build up its defenses in that part of the city. The advance of Iraqi forces also is complicated by ancient buildings and very narrow streets, he said.
The resulting battle is the most “extraordinarily brutal close quarters combat” he has seen in his career, Townsend said, calling it “the most significant urban combat to take place since World War II.”
The Pentagon has assigned Air Force Brig. Gen. Matthew Isler to head the investigations into civilian casualties in Mosul. If there is evidence that the U.S. was responsible, a formal investigation will be opened.
Such an official investigation, called a 15-6, has now been opened into an airstrike that occurred on the same day near Aleppo, Syria. Monitoring groups reported that a mosque was struck, killing dozens of civilians who’d gathered there for evening prayers. The Pentagon says the target was a meeting of al Qaida senior leaders.
Another report of at least 30 civilian deaths in an airstrike that hit a school north of Raqqa in Syria last week is likely “not credible,” Townsend said.
The official Pentagon estimate is that the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has killed 220 civilians since the operation began in 2014. 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.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says more than 320,000 people have died in six years of conflict in Syria, which began in March 2011 with protests against President Bashar Assad.