Iraq news reports say 18 civilians killed in strike aimed at militants

Iraqi news reports say U.S.-led forces conducted an airstrike that killed 18 civilians in Hit

Iraqi news outlets reported Monday that at least 18 civilians, mostly women and children, were killed in an airstrike on a town under siege by fighters from the extremist group Islamic State.

The reports said that the U.S.-led coalition conducted the attack that hit at least one building in Hit, a strategic Euphrates River Valley town in Iraq's Anbar province.

But Maj. Curtis J.  Kellogg, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command, said there was “no evidence” of civilian casualties in Hit.

“We have seen the media reports alleging civilian casualties in Hit, Iraq,” Maj. Kellogg said in an email responding to a Los Angeles Times inquiry. “However, based on our current assessment, we believe them to be false and have seen no evidence to corroborate these claims. I can assure you that prior to any mission, every precaution is taken to ensure we do not harm civilians or civilian facilities. However, we take all such reports seriously and look into them further.”

Hit’s general hospital received 18 bodies, including three women and eight children, all killed in an airstrike, according to Iraqi news accounts.

“It's possible that the coalition's air force struck the houses by mistake," an unidentified source told Erem News, a local network.

"Coalition aircraft attempted to target houses containing ISIS elements, but the [projectiles] fell on the houses of citizens,” the report said, using a common acronym for Islamic State.

A Central Command news release Monday, which used another acronym for the militants, said that "an airstrike west of Ramadi damaged an ISIL-held building," but did not say whether the attack was in Hit, 43 miles west of the central province's capital.

Hit, a tribal town in the Sunni Muslim stronghold of Anbar, has been under assault since last week by Islamic State forces, which have seized vast stretches of territory in Iraq and neighboring Syria. Many residents have fled the violence. 

Hit was also a bastion of anti-U.S. militants during the U.S. occupation that ended in 2011.

Outnumbered Iraqi government forces, which are defending the town, have run out of arms and equipment and were surrounded by Islamic State fighters, according to Iraqi news accounts.

On Monday, Sabah Karhout, who heads the Anbar provincial governing council,  demanded that Baghdad provide "immediate support and assistance to Hit police [who] are currently waging a vicious battle” against Islamic State, reported Sot Al Iraq, another Iraqi news outlet.

Throughout Iraq and Syria, there have been reports that Islamic State militants have altered their tactics to blunt the effect of U.S.-led airstrikes. The extremists have dispersed positions to present less of a target and moved from exposed bases to areas with considerable civilian populations, observers say.

U.S. and Iraqi officials say they want to avoid civilian casualties that may breed further resentment, especially in places like Hit and elsewhere in Anbar province, where the largely Sunni population is deeply alienated from the Shiite Muslim-dominated government in Baghdad.

In addition to the U.S.-led coalition, the Iraqi air force has also bombarded insurgent positions in Iraq, resulting in numerous civilian deaths and drawing severe criticism from human rights groups and residents in the targeted areas.

Responding to the outcry, Prime Minister Haider Abadi announced last month that the country’s armed forces had suspended aerial bombardments in areas where civilians are present.

Bulos is a special correspondent.

For news from Iraq, follow @mcdneville on Twitter.

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