The top general for U.S. military operations in the Middle East says the military has launched a formal investigation into the circumstances that caused estimates of about 100 civilian deaths in Mosul, Iraq, while the U.S. was conducting counter-Islamic State airstrikes in the area.
Army Gen. Joseph Votel, the commander of U.S. Central Command, told lawmakers Wednesday at a House Armed Services Committee meeting that Islamic State fighters have evolved their tactics in the densely urban terrain.
“They [Islamic State fighters] understand our sensitivities to civilian casualties, and they are exploiting that,” Votel said.
The investigation, led by Air Force Brigadier General Matthew Isler, will look at what all sides did to contribute to the deaths on March 17.
It will review more than 700 separate video feeds covering 10 days of airstrikes, information from rights groups, and intelligence provided by Iraqi forces.
The general said that while U.S. military leaders “at the tactical edge” now have additional authorities needed in the fight, the level of care for preventing civilian casualties has not changed.
“We have not relaxed the rules of engagement,” Votel said.
He blamed Islamic State for frequently using human shields and civilian casualty allegations as a tool to hinder coalition operations with “little regard for human life.”
The announcement comes a day after Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, Votel’s ground commander of American forces in Iraq and Syria, said the U.S. military likely played a role in the civilian deaths.
“Because we struck in that area, I think there is a fair chance that we did it,” Townsend told reporters in a conference call Tuesday from Baghdad.
Townsend said Iraqi military leaders “firmly believe” that civilians were gathered by Islamic State ahead of the strike, either to lure the coalition into a trap that would kill civilians or possibly for the extremists’ use as human shields.
Further questions of U.S. involvement have been raised that are based on the amount of damage in the area where civilian casualties were reported. According to Townsend, the munitions used during the U.S. airstrike should not have collapsed an entire building. Since the building did collapse, that “actually contradicts” the conclusion that the U.S. military was responsible, he said.
Townsend said U.S. personnel have inspected the site to conduct tests and gather information.
The United States has said at least 307 people were killed and 273 others wounded between February 17 and March 22 in western Mosul. It attributed the casualties to all sides involved in the fight for western Mosul: Iraqi and coalition airstrikes, Islamic State shellfire, and improvised explosive devices detonated by the militants.
The Islamic State strategy “of using children, men and women to shield themselves from attack is cowardly and disgraceful,” U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein Said on Tuesday. “It breaches the most basic standards of human dignity and morality.”