The Pentagon is continuing its investigation of a March 17 air strike in Mosul that reportedly hit and destroyed a building full of civilians, potentially killing 150 or more people. If confirmed, it could be the single deadliest bombing of civilians in more than two decades, says the Washington Post.
On Tuesday, Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, admitted there was a “fair chance” that the coalition-led air strike led to mass civilian deaths. Townsend said that, based on the initial assessment, “We did strike in that area, there were multiple strikes in that area, so is it possible that we did that? Yes, I think it is possible.”
U.S. personnel have visited the bombed-out location. What seems to be in dispute is whether the U.S. coalition-led strike caused the building to collapse; Iraqi officials have said that ISIS militants, taking advantage of the chaos, detonated their own device to maximize civilian casualties. The New York Times interviewed survivors and other residents who squarely blamed the air strike.
Townsend also speculated that ISIS snipers, who were posted on the targeted building, had gathered civilians there on purpose. “What I don’t know — were they gathered there by the enemy? It sure looks like they were,” he said. “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.”
Civilian casualties have increased since the campaign to retake western Mosul intensified last month. The UN estimates that about 300 people have been killed in both coalition-led offensive and by ISIS militants. Some of this is the consequence of a tough and treacherous battle in an older, densely populated part of the city; officials had anticipated a bloody battle to unfold on the streets of the ISIS-held neighborhoods. Yet the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein cautioned coalition-led forces from taking ISIS’s bait. “This is an enemy that ruthlessly exploits civilians to serve its own ends,” he said in a statement, “and clearly has not even the faintest qualm about deliberately placing them in danger.”
Yet the increase in civilian casualties, including a bombing in Aleppo, Syria that allegedly killed nearly 50 civilians, have raised questions about a possible shift in U.S. military strategy. An uptick of civilian deaths began under President Barack Obama, but the trend has continued under President Trump, according to the Times. American officials say no policies have changed, and that the civilian deaths coincide with the stepped-up Mosul offensive. On Monday, Secretary of Defense James Mattis said that coalition forces “go out of our way to always do everything humanly possible to reduce loss of life or injury among innocent people.”