The US military has elevated the level of inquiry into the suspected Mosul airstrike that allegedly killed dozens of civilians from a “credibility assessment” to a full formal investigation, the head of the US Central Command has said at a Congress briefing.
"It will be a more formalized approach to really look into the details of this as much as we can to establish what happened, establish what the facts are, identify accountability and then certainly identify the lessons learned out of that," Army General Joseph Votel, the US CENTCOM commander, said during a House Armed Services Committee hearing, referring to the incident on March 17.
Dozens of civilians died as a residential building in western Mosul collapsed after a suspected airstrike carried out by the US-led coalition.
General Votel also agreed with an earlier assessment by another high-ranking US military official, Lieutenant General Steve Townsend, who commands the Combined Joint Task Force - Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF–OIR), who said, “there is a fair chance that our operation may have contributed to these casualties.”
The CENTCOM commander went on to say that Islamic State (IS, former ISIS/ISIL) is most likely to have a hand in this tragedy.
“The enemy does use human shields, has little regard for human life,” and tries to use reports of civilian casualties to hinder the Iraqi forces campaign supported by the coalition, so “they bear the responsibility for this as well,” Votel said.
He added that Islamic State is “exploiting” the US “sensitivity for civilian casualties” and expressly agreed with the statement of the Rep. Martha McSally (R-Arizona), who said that if the US doesn’t kill ISIS terrorists, they will kill more civilians.
Votel also confirmed that US forces are not going to change the rules of engagement in its fight against Islamic State in Iraq despite the risk of greater civilian casualties.
Earlier, CENTCOM spokesman, Colonel John Thomas, told journalists that “General Votel is not looking into changing the way we operate other than to say our processes are good.”
The alleged airstrike hit western Mosul’s al-Jadida neighborhood destroying a residential building and burying dozens of people under the rubble.
The Iraqi military said in a statement that 61 bodies were subsequently pulled from the ruins, while a municipal official said the death toll of the attack was as high as 240.
Meanwhile, Votel said that 284 Iraqi soldiers have been killed and 1,600 injured since the fighting started in western Mosul.
On March 25, the CJTF–OIR issued a statement, in which it admitted that the US-led coalition did carry out an airstrike targeting the area at the request of the Iraqi forces around the time when the incident happened, adding that it opened a probe into the coalition’s alleged involvement in the issue.
The Iraqi War Media Cell has meanwhile issued its own statement concerning the incident, in which it said the building was likely blown up by Islamic State terrorists’ booby traps and had not been targeted by a coalition airstrike.
Earlier, the UN expressed its “profound concern” over the “high number of civilian casualties in al-Jadida in Iraq,” referring particularly to the March 17 incident.
US-led coalition ‘knows they kill civilians, ’ says journalist, who reported from Mosul
The US-led coalition forces are fully aware that civilians are getting killed by their airstrikes in Mosul but they still favor mass bombing as it seems to be the easiest strategy to retake the city, Jurgen Todenhofer, the first western journalist, who spent ten days in the area controlled by Islamic State, told RT.
He also said the US-led coalition has not been particularly effective in defeating Islamic State as a terrorist group as it helps the Iraqi forces to seize territories from the extremists.“The civilians are bombarded almost every day," especially now, when the US-led coalition prepares for one of the biggest attacks on the Mosul old city, Todenhofer said, describing the situation in Mosul.
He said the coalition forces “use the same strategy: they bomb the parts [of the city] they want to [seize] and then the special forces from several nations enter and fight down those, who are left,” adding that “many civilians are killed” as a result of such strategy.
“In Aleppo, civilians as well as rebels and even … Al Nusra terrorists got an opportunity to leave,” he added, pointing out that “in Iraq, there was no such strategy to protect the civilians.”
The journalist went on to say that “everyone, who bombs the city, knows that they will kill civilians and the Americans know it exactly” because when the coalition hits a house it often does not know, “who exactly can be in that house, so they know exactly that they are killing civilians.”
Todenhofer added that “the number of civilians killed in Sunni cities like Tikrit, Fallujah, Ramallah … and Mosul [as a result of the coalition airstrikes] is ten times higher than the number of Islamic State fighters” and in Mosul it could well have reached 10,000.
“The Americans have been quite successful in destroying Islamic State as a state but not as a terrorist group,” he said, adding that the terrorists entrenched in western Mosul are likely to flee the city “as they have escaped from other [Iraqi] cities.”
Todenhofer said he was told that “at least 600 IS fighters now [act] as sleepers in eastern Mosul” and those, who are now fighting in the western part of the city, could flee to the desert and they would be “joined by the young people, who lost their homes and their families.”