Commander: 'Fair chance' US-led Mosul strike played role in civilian deaths

Commander: 'Fair chance' US-led Mosul strike played role in civilian deaths
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The top U.S. commander in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) said Tuesday "there's a fair chance" that U.S.-led coalition forces are partly responsible for the recent civilian deaths in Mosul but added there are signs that ISIS also played a role.

Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve, said initial assessments show that U.S. forces did strike in an area in west Mosul, Iraq, where a building collapse killed as many as 200 civilians.

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Reports of the deaths surfaced last week, but Iraqi officials have said it’s unclear if the airstrike caused the building collapse or if ISIS took advantage of the chaos to set off a trap.

“There were multiple strikes in that area,” Townsend said. “Is it possible that we did that? Yes, I think it is possible.”

But Townsend said the fact that the entire building collapsed points elsewhere.

“We have munitions in our inventory that can collapse whole buildings. That’s not what we used in this case,” he said. “So the building should not have collapsed and that’s something we have to figure out.”

The Pentagon has named Air Force Brig. Gen. Matthew Isler as the official in charge of the investigations into the Mosul civilian casualties, Townsend said.

U.S. personnel have visited the strike site in the past 24 hours for initial assessments, with signs pointing to ISIS involvement.

“What I don’t know — were they gathered there by the enemy? It sure looks like they were,” Townsend said of the civilians trapped in the collapse. “We know that ISIS were fighting from that position, from that building. 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. My initial impression is the enemy had a hand in this.”

A number of high-profile reports of civilian casualties in recent weeks have elicited new scrutiny of U.S. airstrikes, including one in Syria’s Aleppo province that hit a building associated with a mosque, killing more than 40 people, mostly civilians. The Pentagon said the strike was aimed at an al Qaeda meeting and is investigating whether the building was part of a larger "mosque complex."

Townsend said another report of civilian deaths — where at least 30 civilians were killed in an airstrike that hit a school in a rural area north of Raqqa province in Syria last week — was likely “not credible.”

“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. Yet, not seeing any corroborating evidence of that. I think that’s going to play out to be unfounded and we struck enemy fighters that we planned to strike there,” he added. 

The Pentagon is investigating all three strikes, but no conclusions have been reached yet.

Townsend placed blame for the civilian deaths on ISIS and said the U.S-led forces have applied great care and caution in avoiding civilian deaths in the fight.

“This is the toughest and most brutal phase of this war and probably the toughest and most brutal close quarter combat that I have observed or read about in my 34 years of service,” he said. “I think that’s really the explanation for civilian casualties. … It’s unfortunate that they’re just stuck in the crossfire.