U.S. mil­i­tary con­firms airstrike in Mo­sul

The March 17 at­tack was in a neigh­bor­hood of the Iraqi city where res­i­dents say more than 100 civil­ians were killed

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY MISSY RYAN AND LOVEDAY MOR­RIS

The U.S. mil­i­tary ac­knowl­edged for the first time Satur­day that it launched an airstrike against the Is­lamic State in the densely packed Iraqi city of Mo­sul, where res­i­dents say more than 100 peo­ple were killed in a sin­gle event.

If con­firmed, the March 17 in­ci­dent would mark the great­est loss of civil­ian life since the United States be­gan strikes on Is­lamic State tar­gets in Iraq and Syria in 2014.

An “ini­tial re­view” showed that the coali­tion struck Is­lamic State fight­ers and equip­ment in west Mo­sul at the re­quest of Iraq forces and “at the lo­ca­tion cor­re­spond­ing to al­le­ga­tions of civil­ian ca­su­al­ties,” the task force lead­ing the coali­tion said in a state­ment.

Pre­vi­ously, the U.S.-led coali­tion had said of­fi­cials were un­sure whether there were any air at­tacks tar­get­ing the spe­cific area of the neigh­bor­hood Mo­sul al-Ja­dida at the time when res­i­dents claim a strike killed 137 civil­ians.

Iraqi of­fi­cials work­ing on the res­cue said they had pulled 83 bod­ies — in­clud­ing many women and chil­dren — from a de­stroyed build­ing by sun­down on Satur­day. They have yet to com­plete ex­ca­va­tions at the site.

The U.S. mil­i­tary is con­duct­ing an ini­tial in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the in­ci­dent.

Al­le­ga­tions of large-scale civil­ian car­nage deepen ques­tions about the con­duct of coun­tert­er­ror­ism op­er­a­tions un­der Pres­i­dent Trump, who promised to act more ag­gres­sively to stamp out mil­i­tant groups but whose short pres­i­dency has been marked by a spate of high-pro­file in­ci­dents in which civil­ians may have died.

In ad­di­tion to the March 17 strike in Mo­sul, the U.S. mil­i­tary is now in­ves­ti­gat­ing a sep­a­rate at­tack this month al­leged

to have killed scores of civil­ians at a mosque in Syria. Mil­i­tary lead­ers have also ac­knowl­edged the death of at least some civil­ians in a Navy SEAL raid in Ye­men in Jan­uary.

Ac­tivists in­clud­ing Air­wars, a U.K.-based mon­i­tor­ing group, have raised the alarm at what they say is a surge in U.S.-linked deaths in Iraq and Syria, as­sert­ing that 1,000 civil­ians have died this month alone in strikes by the U.S.-led coali­tion in Iraq and Syria.

While the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion ac­knowl­edged that its mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions re­sulted in a num­ber of civil­ian ca­su­alty in­ci­dents in Iraq and Syria and else­where, the tightly spaced se­ries of re­cent al­le­ga­tions is strik­ing.

It re­mains un­clear what, if any, com­mon fac­tors may be be­hind the re­ported uptick in civil­ian blood­shed.

Op­er­a­tions against Is­lamic State strongholds have reached a new, more in­tense phase in Mo­sul, where lo­cal forces are bat­tling mil­i­tants in heav­ily pop­u­lated neigh­bor­hoods, and in Syria, where the United States is seek­ing to deal a de­ci­sive blow to sev­eral mil­i­tant In his first days in of­fice, Pres­i­dent Trump, who crit­i­cized his pre­de­ces­sor as weak against mil­i­tant groups, asked the Pen­tagon to con­sider whether re­stric­tions on U.S. mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions against the group, de­signed in part to pro­tect civil­ian life, should be loos­ened.

Of­fi­cials main­tain that, so far at least, no changes to ex­ist­ing rules for mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions have taken place.

Mil­i­tary com­man­ders also say they take ex­ten­sive mea­sures to pro­tect civil­ian life. In its state­ment, the U.S.-led coali­tion said its goal was “zero civil­ian ca­su­al­ties.”

“But the coali­tion will not aban­don our com­mit­ment to our Iraqi part­ners be­cause of ISIS’s in­hu­man tac­tics ter­ror­iz­ing civil­ians, us­ing hu­man shields, and fight­ing from pro­tected sites such as schools, hos­pi­tals, re­li­gious sites and civil­ian neigh­bor­hoods,” the state­ment read.

Like other strikes con­ducted in sup­port of Iraqi ground op­er­a­tions, the March 17 at­tack was ap­proved at a U.S. com­mand cen­ter ei­ther in Iraq or else­where in the Mid­dle East, de­fense of­fi­cials said. Typ­i­cally, a one-star gen­eral or a team work­ing un­der him or her re­views and ap­proves such strikes. That makes them dif­fer­ent from strikes tar­get­ing a spe­cific in­di­vid­ual, which are planned much fur­ther in ad­vance and could re­quire ap­proval from the White House.

The in­crease in civil­ian ca­su­alty claims threat­ens to tar­nish the gains of Iraqi forces and the U.S.-led coali­tion. An­a­lysts have said that with res­i­dents fed up after nearly three years of bru­tal Is­lamic State rule, the op­er­a­tion to re­take the city presents an op­por­tu­nity to re­set re­la­tions be­tween the ma­jor­ity Sunni city and the gov­ern­ment in Bagh­dad — es­sen­tial for pre­vent­ing ex­trem­ism.

But the ex­tended op­er­a­tion to re­take Is­lamic State’s last re­main­ing strong­hold in Iraq has turned into a messy bat­tle, where civil­ians are caught in the cross­fire.

Leav­ing the bombed-out street with tears in his eyes on Fri­day, Sa­ban Ahmed Ibrahim was among those who claimed to have lost rel­a­tives in the strike. He said he moved his wife and two chil­dren — a 2-year-old boy and a 1-year-old girl — out of his neigh­groups. bor­hood to shel­ter in Mo­sul al-Ja­dida be­cause of the heavy fight­ing around his home. But after his neigh­bor­hood was re­taken by Iraqi se­cu­rity forces, his fam­ily be­came trapped on the other side of the front line.

He was still wait­ing for the bod­ies of his loved ones to be re­cov­ered from the build­ing.

“I blame ev­ery­one,” he said. “I still have God, and I trust that he will take his re­venge.”

Iraqi com­man­ders have at­tempted to play down the in­ci­dent and have re­stricted me­dia ac­cess to the area. An Iraqi mil­i­tary com­man­der sug­gested that the large death toll in the March 17 in­ci­dent may have been par­tially caused by the fact that a mis­sile struck a car bomb, un­leash­ing a gi­ant ex­plo­sion. An­other sug­gested mil­i­tants booby-trapped the build­ing with ex­plo­sives and det­o­nated it.

How­ever, sev­eral civil de­fense of­fi­cials said that they could tell by the di­rec­tion of the blast dam­age and the lack of a crater as­so­ci­ated with a car-bomb ex­plo­sion that dam­age was caused by a di­rect airstrike on the prop­erty.

Res­cue work­ers and res­i­dents de­scribed a hellish scene, where scores of civil­ians were killed in nearby build­ings in heavy bom­bard­ment last­ing sev­eral days. Other fam­i­lies on an ad­ja­cent street also al­leged their houses were de­stroyed by airstrikes — killing scores more.

U.S. of­fi­cials said it has been dif­fi­cult to de­ter­mine ex­actly what oc­curred be­cause the same area ap­peared to have been hit with a num­ber of strikes or ex­plo­sions in the days sur­round­ing the March 17 at­tack.

Is­lamic State fight­ers moved fam­i­lies into the area as they used it to launch at­tacks on the ad­vanc­ing Iraqi forces, res­i­dents said. They said the Is­lamist ex­trem­ists are also forc­ing res­i­dents to leave their front doors open so the fight­ers can move from house to house eas­ily.

Res­i­dents said the house was packed dur­ing the heavy fight­ing with sev­eral fam­i­lies be­cause it was one of the few in the area with a base­ment. An Is­lamic State head­quar­ters was dis­cov­ered in a build­ing nearby.

“They have a new style of fight­ing, which is a heinous one,” said Iraqi coun­tert­er­ror­ism com­man­der Lt. Gen. Ab­dul Ghani al-As­sadi. “They gather civil­ians into a house where they are fight­ing so we will re­quest an airstrike and then they will die with the civil­ians,” he said, but claimed the mass ca­su­alty in­ci­dent in Mo­sul al-Ja­dida was caused by the det­o­na­tion of an Is­lamic State car bomb.

Rel­a­tives and res­cue work­ers have been pick­ing through de­bris in the neigh­bor­hood for days, pulling out corpses and lift­ing them into blue body bags for burial.

Res­cue ef­forts were ini­tially ham­pered by a lack of se­cu­rity and poorly equipped civil de­fense teams. Ex­tra work­ers were sent from Bagh­dad to as­sist, but by the time they ar­rived in the neigh­bor­hood five days after the strikes, hope of find­ing any­one alive had dimmed.

“Is­lamic State is gath­er­ing peo­ple and us­ing them as shields and the coali­tion comes and bombs — they are both to blame,” said Moataz Haitham as he wheeled a wooden cart car­ry­ing three of his dead cousins.

MARCUS YAM/LOS AN­GE­LES TIMES VIA GETTY IMAGES

A man grieves for loved ones found dead in the rub­ble of a home in a Mo­sul neigh­bor­hood where U.S. of­fi­cials ac­knowl­edge that an airstrike oc­curred.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.