Dem rep demands answers from Mattis on civilian casualties

Greg Nash

Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), a former Air Force lawyer and a frequent critic of President Trump, is demanding answers from Defense Secretary James Mattis on a reported increase in civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria.

“The American public deserves to know what is going on in Syria and Iraq,” Lieu wrote in a four-page letter to Mattis released Thursday that listed 19 questions for the secretary. “The apparently large numbers of children and civilian adults being killed by U.S. forces is not acceptable.”

Pentagon officials have acknowledged that a U.S. airstrike was at least partially responsible for a building collapse in west Mosul that reportedly killed more than 200 people. But they’ve also said that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) could have done something to cause the building to collapse.

In addition to the west Mosul casualties, there have been reports of civilian casualties in Syria from an airstrike on a building associated with a mosque and another strike on a school. Pentagon officials have said the reports about the school strike are likely not credible, while the mosque strike continues to be investigated. 

The reports have left human rights groups and independent monitors suspicious that President Trump has made changes to the rules of engagement.

The Pentagon has insisted that no such changes have been made. On Monday, Mattis said the military does everything possible to avoid civilian casualties.

“There is no military force in the world that has proven more sensitive to civilian casualties,” Mattis said. “We are keenly aware that every battlefield where an enemy hides behind women and children is also a humanitarian field, and we go out of our way to always do everything humanly possible to reduce the loss of life or injury among innocent people.”

In his letter, Lieu said the reports of civilian casualties call into question whether Trump is violating the law of war.

“The substantial increases in civilian deaths caused by U.S. military force in Syria and Iraq brings into question whether the Trump administration is violating the law of war,” he wrote. “The large number of civilian casualties also suggests a possible breakdown in target selection, intelligence gathering or operational execution.”

Lieu also cited Trump’s campaign comments promising to “bomb the shit” out of ISIS” and “take out their families.”

“These comments suggest Donald Trump either does not understand the law of war or doesn’t care,” Lieu wrote. “The American public needs to know if Trump’s prior statements are being implemented through policy changes that have now resulted in large increases in civilian deaths cause by U.S. bombs.”

Lieu asked Mattis how many civilians have been killed since Trump’s inauguration, whether the rules of engagement have been relaxed, how the Pentagon ensures compliance with the law of war, whether a military lawyer reviews targets before they are struck, what changes will be made to avoid mass civilian casualties, and whether any U.S. personnel have violated the law of war since Trump’s inauguration, among other questions.

“Whether or not there have been violations of the [law of armed conflict], the deaths of significant numbers of women and children at the hands of U.S. military personnel are not only tragic, those civilian deaths directly harm our national security,” Lieu wrote. “If a small number of civilian deaths can cause significant strategic setbacks, imagine what the large numbers of civilian deaths caused by recent U.S. airstrike will do.”

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