WASHINGTON – The top United States commander overseeing the anti-ISIS operation said Tuesday that the U.S. “probably had a role” in the March 17 explosion in Mosul, Iraq that resulted in some 100 civilian deaths, but that ISIS also could be responsible.
“If we did it, and I would say there’s at least a fair chance that we did, it was an unintentional accident of war, and we will transparently report it to you,” Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend told reporters via teleconference from Baghdad.
He said that his initial assessment is “that we probably had a role in these casualties,” but what’s not clear is “whether that strike is responsible for the casualties in question.”
The U.S. military opened an investigation into the March 17 incident and has had forces on the ground to assess the scene, where locals say about 200 people were crushed to death when the building they were in collapsed.
The ongoing investigation, led by Air Force Brig. Gen. Matthew Isler, is looking at whether a secondary explosion, potentially rigged by ISIS, caused the building’s collapse. Townsend said that in this particular airstrike, the munition used “should not have collapsed an entire building.”
“Civilians are dying in Mosul,” Townsend said. “Most of them are dying at the hand of ISIS, and that’s the real horror, the real tragedy. Make no mistake about it, ISIS will continue to cause massive human suffering if the Iraqi security forces and the coalition do not prevail.”
Amid mounting reports of civilian deaths, he pushed back against accusations that the United States has loosened its safeguards to protect civilians. He said that while there have been some “minor adjustments” to the rules of engagement, the changes did not effect the March 17 strike. In December, Townsend granted authorities allowing U.S. advisers to call in airstrikes more quickly, without going through headquarters.
“What I don’t know – were they gathered there by the enemy? It sure looks like they were,” Townsend said of the civilians killed. “We know that ISIS were fighting from that position, from that building … My initial impression is the enemy had a hand in this.”
Townsend repeated that the United States did conduct a strike in the area on the day of the alleged deaths. U.S. Central Command, the military command overseeing the Middle East, has said the aircraft acted at the request of Iraqi security forces.
Townsend said the coalition has expected the fight for Western Mosul to be brutal, with more ISIS sympathizers amid the populous, tighter fighting conditions in the densely populated area and greater ISIS defenses dug in.
“It is the toughest, most brutal phase of this war,” Townsend said, with close combat more difficult than he has seen in 34 years in uniform.
Townsend said the coalition and its allies have observed civilians fleeing from ISIS held buildings, and have heard reports that ISIS has shot civilians trying to leave Mosul. He said the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service reported discovering two buildings rigged with booby-traps, with 25 hostages in one and 45 in another.
The Center for Civilians in Conflict, a Washington-based advocacy group, called Tuesday for greater protections for civilians caught in the conflict. “The brutality and cruelty of the [ISIS] do not absolve the U.S. and its allies of responsibility to care for civilians; indeed, the coalition’s duty to harm as few civilians as possible is even greater because of it,” the group said in a statement.
If confirmed, the March 17 attack in Mosul would be among the deadliest airstrikes to hit civilians since the U.S. war in Iraq began in 2003. The U.N. has said that at least 61 people were killed in the strike, while Amnesty International said as many as 150 might have died.
“The fact that Iraqi authorities repeatedly advised civilians to remain at home, instead of fleeing the area, indicates that coalition forces should have known that these strikes were likely to result in a significant number of civilian casualties,” Donatella Rovera, of Amnesty International, said in a statement Monday.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, said Tuesday that at least 307 civilians have been killed and another 273 wounded in Western Mosul since Feb. 17.
“ISIL’s strategy of using children, men and women to shield themselves from attack is cowardly and disgraceful,” he said in a statement, using an alternate acronym for ISIS. “… The conduct of airstrikes on ISIL locations in such an environment, particularly given the clear indications that ISIL is using large numbers of civilians as human shields at such locations, may potentially have a lethal and disproportionate impact on civilians.”
The U.S. military has acknowledged at least 220 civilian deaths from coalition airstrikes in Iraq and Syria since the anti-ISIS air war began in 2014.
Around 200,000 people have escaped the fighting in western Mosul, according to U.N. estimates, but 500,000 are still thought to be trapped inside the city.
March 22 coalition strike in Raqqa appears ‘clean’
Initial investigations into a March 22 airstrike in Raqqa, Syria that was said to have killed about 30 civilians, show that the strike was “clean,” Townsend said. He said there is currently “no corroborating evidence” indicating civilians were killed, and that he believes the investigation will show that strikes hit some 30 ISIS fighters.
“We had multiple, corroborating intelligence sources from various types of intelligence that told us that the enemy was using that school, and we observed it and we saw what we expected to see; we struck it,” Townsend said. “Afterwards, we got a single allegation that it wasn’t ISIS fighters in there and it was instead of refugees of some sort in the school.”