- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
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. But the top U.S. commander in Baghdad says while there’s a “fair chance” the U.S. was involved, he’s not convinced the Islamic State didn’t have a hand in the destruction.
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 in Mosul, 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 identified as an ISIS position. As many as 200 civilians may have been killed as a result, and the U.S. military is trying to find out if they’re responsible.
“My initial assessment is that we probably had a role in these casualties,” the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Steve Townsend, told reporters at the Pentagon on Tuesday. He added, however, that he believes that the Islamic State had a role in the casualties, either by herding civilians into the building or helping bring the building down through their own explosives.
While Townsend echoed other military officials by acknowledging that U.S. aircraft had conducted strikes in the area, he’s unconvinced that an American strike alone brought the building down, as the munitions the U.S. aircraft are using in Mosul would likely not cause a building to collapse.
“We know ISIS were fighting from that position in that building,” the general said. “And 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. So that’s my initial impression, the enemy had a hand in this, and there’s also a fair chance our strike had some role in it,” Townsend said.
American investigators are currently poring over hundreds of hours of combat footage of airstrikes in Mosul around the date of the strike, Col. John Thomas, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command said Monday.
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. So far, 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