2017-03-29 19:23:00
New rules of engagement governing U.S. airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria played no role in the surge of civilian casualties during recent offensives in both countries, the coalition’s top U.S. general said Tuesday. The modified rules, initiated during the last days of the Obama administration, consisted of “relatively minor adjustments” approved by top officials at U.S. Central Command and did not undermine the mandate that U.S. forces work to minimize collateral damage, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend told reporters at the Pentagon. Even so, Gen. Townsend acknowledged there was “a fair chance” a U.S. airstrike against a suspected Islamic State stronghold in western Mosul over the weekend resulted in the deaths of an estimated 150 or more Iraqi civilians, an incident that is still being investigated. “We probably had a role in those casualties,” the general said, citing reports that U.S. warplanes had carried out multiple strikes in the neighborhood where the mass casualties were reported. But he also said that “the enemy had a hand in this,” he added, noting Islamic State’s use of civilians as human shields and questioning why so many civilians would voluntarily gather in a single building under assault by American airpower. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and other officials in Baghdad, said it was also possible Islamic State fighters had detonated the Mosul building and caused the civilian casualties as a way to “cause a delay in the offensive on Mosul.” The controversy comes amid reports the Trump White House has unofficially encouraged more aggressive strikes as fighting intensifies against Islamic State in the campaigns in Mosul, Iraq and Raqqa, Syria — the terror group’s de facto “capital.” The modified rules, approved in December under President Obama, essentially allowed lower-level commanders to authorize U.S. airstrikes against ISIS targets, instead of requiring Gen. Townsend and other senior leaders to sign off on such operations. But the modified set of rules U.S. warplanes are flying under in Iraq and Syria “are not the cause of what we are seeing right now,” Gen. Townsend said. Still, a review of U.S. and coalition air operations by the British newspaper The Guardian spanning the tail end of the Obama White House into the Trump administration showed a significant increase in American ordnance dropped in Iraq and Syria. U.S. airstrikes jumped from just under 5,700 bombs dropped in November and December to roughly over 7,000 in January and February. The rise, however, has been attributed to the increasingly intense fighting around ISIS’s Iraqi capital of Mosul. The human rights group Amnesty International said Tuesday recent incidents strongly suggest the U.S.-led coalition is not taking adequate precautions to protect civilians as it helps Iraqi forces battle the Islamic State group. Evidence gathered on the ground in Mosul “points to an alarming pattern of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes which have destroyed whole houses with entire families inside,” the Amnesty International report said. Pentagon and coalition officials continue to investigate a series of airstrikes over the last several weeks in Iraq and Syria that eyewitnesses and human rights say have left scores of Iraqi and Syrian civilians dead. Brig. Gen. Matthew Isler, the coalition’s top officer in charge of air operations in Iraq and Syria, is leading the investigation into the Mosul strike. Coalition officials and members of U.S. Central Command are reviewing over 700 video feeds taken over the last 10 days, in an attempt to piece together the events leading up to the fatal attack. When asked whether Islamic State fighters had forced Iraqi civilians into the building, either as human shields, or as a way to accuse U.S. forces of targeting Iraqi civilians, Gen. Townsend replied: “It sure looks like they were.”