Civilian death toll rises in U.S. air war against Islamic State

Syrians carry a stretcher as they evacuate victims from the rubble of a collapsed building after a reported U.S. airstrike in northern Syria on July 19.
(Thaer Mohammed / AFP)

U.S. warplanes probably killed 59 civilians and injured five over seven months this year during the daily bombardment of Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria, where fighters are often mixed among civilians.

The Pentagon’s disclosure Wednesday was the largest admission of responsibility for killing civilians since the Obama administration launched its air war against Islamic State in 2014.

The civilian death toll from U.S. airstrikes now stands at 119, according to the Pentagon. Independent monitors say many more have been killed by errant bombs or poor targeting.


The military issued a two-page release that summarized its findings, not the actual investigations.

Many of the airstrikes, which took place between March 5 and Sept. 10, were blamed on civilians “entering the target area” after a fighter jet or bomber had released a weapon.

Nearly half those killed were in or around Mosul, the densely populated Iraqi city that is now under siege by Iraqi and Kurdish forces backed by U.S. air power.

“We have teams who work full time to prevent unintended civilian casualties,” Col. John Thomas, a military spokesman, said in statement. “We do not want to add to the tragedy of the situation by inflicting addition suffering.”

Syrian opposition activists, human rights groups and humanitarian aid groups insist that the Pentagon has vastly underestimated the number of civilians killed or wounded.

The organizations, which rely on witnesses, estimate that more than 1,000 civilians have been killed or wounded in the 16,000 airstrikes launched by the U.S. and its allies since the air war began in September 2014.


Amnesty International, for example, issued a detailed report last month that found coalition air attacks it had examined had killed about 300 civilians.

“Even today’s acknowledgment is a case of selective disclosure, with [the Department of Defense] holding back information necessary to assess its conclusion that the strikes were lawful and all necessary precautions were taken,” said Naureen Shah, an official at the group.

Shah complained that Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Middle East, isn’t transparent or proactive in its investigations.

The military command demands photographs and other verifiable evidence for claims to qualify for full investigations, but that sort of proof is often impossible to obtain on the battlefield.

Coalition airstrikes target sites under Islamic State control and are largely inaccessible to outsiders. Residents may risk torture or death by stepping forward to work with foreigners.

The military said it has received 249 allegations of incidents where one or more civilians died in the air war against Islamic State -- 179 of which were deemed not credible.


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