United States Central Command is investigating reports that an air strike on western Mosul that killed up to 200 civilians was carried out by U.S. aircraft.
CENTCOM says that there was a coalition air strike in that area on the day in question but can’t confirm it was the source of the casualties.
Col. John J. Thomas, a spokesman for the United States Central Command, said that the military was seeking to determine whether the explosion in Mosul might have been prompted by an American or coalition airstrike, or was a bomb or booby trap placed by the Islamic State.
“It’s a complicated question, and we’ve literally had people working nonstop throughout the night to understand it,” Colonel Thomas said in an interview. He said the explosion and the reasons behind it had “gotten attention at the highest level.”
As to who was responsible, he said, “at the moment, the answer is: We don’t know.”
Iraqi officers, though, say they know exactly what happened: Maj. Gen. Maan al-Saadi, a commander of the Iraqi special forces, said that the civilian deaths were a result of a coalition airstrike that his men had called in, to take out snipers on the roofs of three houses in a neighborhood called Mosul Jidideh. General Saadi said the special forces were unaware that the houses’ basements were filled with civilians.
“After the bombing we were surprised by the civilian victims,” the general said, “and I think it was a trap by ISIS to stop the bombing operations and turn public opinion against us.”
General Saadi said he had demanded that the coalition pause its air campaign to assess what happened and to take stricter measures to prevent more civilian victims. Another Iraqi special forces officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said that there had been a noticeable relaxing of the coalition’s rules of engagement since President Trump took office.
Before, Iraqi officers were highly critical of the Obama administration’s rules, saying that many requests for airstrikes were denied because of the risk that civilians would be hurt. Now, the officer said, it has become much easier to call in airstrikes.
Some American military officials had also chafed at what they viewed as long and onerous White House procedures for approving strikes under the Obama administration. Mr. Trump has indicated that he is more inclined to delegate authority for launching strikes to the Pentagon and commanders in the field.
American military officials are denying that the rules of engagement under the Obama administration regarding the avoidance of civilian casualties have changed. But that’s something you don’t hold a press conference to announce anyway. Civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria have increased recently, but that simply may reflect a more aggressive American effort, as President Trump had promised.
No one likes to see civilian casualties in war, but when the enemy deliberately hides behind women and children hoping to deter their opponent from attacking or, failing that, reaping a propaganda benefit from civilian deaths, it is their choice, not ours. The purists don’t see it that way, but that’s the reality of modern warfare and we either fight it on our terms or accept defeat.