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Pentagon says U.S. airstrikes killed 20 civilians since last fall

The U.S. military is acknowledging that its airstrikes killed 20 civilians in Iraq and Syria over a five-month period that began last September.
The U.S. military is acknowledging that its airstrikes killed 20 civilians in Iraq and Syria over a five-month period that began last September.
(Najim Rahim / Associated Press)

Nine U.S. airstrikes have “likely resulted” in the deaths of 20 civilians and injuries to 11 others in Iraq and Syria since last fall, the Pentagon announced Friday.

The figure brings to 41 the Pentagon’s total official civilian death toll from U.S. airstrikes since the Obama administration launched its air war against Islamic State nearly two years ago.

That tally is far lower than independent monitors have blamed on errant bombs or poor targeting. Human rights and humanitarian aid groups insist that the Pentagon has vastly underestimated the number of civilians killed or wounded.

“We deeply regret the unintentional loss of life and injuries resulting from those strikes and express our deepest sympathies to the victims’ families and those affected,” U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Middle East, said in a statement.

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The military is investigating 23 other allegations of civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria, officials said.

Human rights and humanitarian aid groups estimate that several hundred civilians have been killed or wounded in the more than 11,750 airstrikes launched by the U.S. and its allies since August 2014.

Airwars.org, a nonprofit group that relies on social media and eyewitness accounts, estimates that coalition airstrikes have killed at least 1,000 civilians so far.

The release came as President Obama offered a grim update on the conflict in Syria.

At a news conference in London with Prime Minister David Cameron, Obama said he’s not sure the shaky cessation of hostilities is “sustainable,” but said he sees no other way to resolve the country’s bitter civil war.

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“We have looked at all options,” he said. “None of them are great. And so we are going to play this option out. If in fact the cessation falls apart, we will try to put it back together again even as we continue to go after” Islamic State.

Obama said he and Cameron had agreed to “continue to prosecute the war” against Islamic State and will “continue to support those” willing to fight the extremist group.

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Central Command did not release its investigation of civilian casualties. It instead summarized the findings in a news release that did not identify any of the victims, and provided few details.

The military said the airstrikes complied with laws on armed conflict and that “all appropriate precautions” were taken to prevent civilian casualties.

Military and intelligence personnel are supposed to calculate the blast area and potential risk to civilians before any attack is approved.

They are supposed to determine the size of the missile or bomb, what angle it should hit, and often the time of attack to minimize the risk. U.S. spy satellites and drone aircraft relay live video before and after the bombs hit.

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According to the release, two civilians were killed and four injured on Sept. 10, 2015, during an airstrike on an Islamic State checkpoint near Hit, Iraq. It said “their vehicle appeared in the target area after weapons were already in flight.”

On Oct. 5, eight civilians were killed in an airstrike on a mortar position in Atshanah, Iraq. The release did not say why civilians were there.

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On Nov. 12, an airstrike targeting militants in the Iraqi city of Ramadi killed one civilian. Another was killed on Dec. 10 near Raqqa, Islamic State’s self-declared capital in Syria.

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Five civilians were killed two days later at a suspected militant checkpoint in Ramadi. They appeared in the target area “after weapons were already in flight,” the release said.

A civilian on a motorcycle was killed on Dec. 24 in Tishreen, Syria, during an attack on a nearby vehicle.

On Jan. 11 of this year, a civilian was killed near Mosul, Iraq, during an attack on a “cash distribution station” used by the militants. And on Feb. 2, a civilian was killed in Al Ghazili, Syria, during an attack on a vehicle.

Staff writer Christi Parsons contributed from Washington.

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