WASHINGTON — The top coalition commander said Tuesday there is a "fair chance" that the U.S.-led coalition played a role in the March 17 airstrike on a building in Mosul that killed dozens of Iraqi civilians. But he blamed Islamic State militants for likely holding the civilians hostage.
“My initial impression is the enemy had a hand in this, and that there’s also a fair chance that our strike had some role in it,” Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend told Pentagon reporters in a phone briefing from Iraq. “I think it’s probably going to play out to be some sort of combination.”
Witnesses have said at least 100 bodies were pulled from the rubble of the building in western Mosul, but there is no official death toll. Estimates range from 50 to 200.
Townsend said the militants probably gathered the civilians into the building and may have rigged it to explode, which could have caused the building to collapse. If the building was also used for making bombs, that could have triggered “secondary” explosions.
Townsend said the munition used in the airstrike was not designed to level the building. The coalition uses an array of munitions, including some with small explosives that can take out a sniper but leave a structure standing.
He said the investigation is not complete. As part of the probe, U.S. personnel have visited the site where numerous bodies have been recovered. He said if the coalition airstrike was partly responsible, it was accidental and would be thoroughly investigated.
Amnesty International, a human rights organization, said an increase in civilian casualty reports suggests the coalition is not taking adequate precaution to protect innocent lives.
The Pentagon said it has not loosened its regulations or procedures to minimize civilian casualties.
Still, the battle for Mosul — the last remaining stronghold for the Islamic State in Iraq — has heightened the risk for civilians. U.S.-backed Iraqi forces are now fighting in densely packed neighborhoods with narrow streets and alleys. Thousands of civilians chose to remain in the city or have been unable to escape.
Townsend appeared frustrated that the incident has drawn more news media attention than the Islamic State’s purposeful brutality. The Islamic State, also known as ISIS, regularly uses women and children as "human shields" to avoid being targeted by the coalition.
He said Iraq’s counterterrorism forces recently came across two buildings rigged to explode. One building had 45 people in it, and the other had 25. The Iraqi forces rescued the hostages before the militants killed them.
"ISIS is slaughtering Iraqis and Syrians on a daily basis,” Townsend said. “ISIS is cutting off heads, ISIS is shooting people, throwing people from buildings burning them alive and they’re making a video record to prove it.”