USA Military First Look

Airstrikes in Mosul kill civilians: Are US rules of engagement getting slacker?

Iraqi officers say they're suspending operations against ISIS in Mosul after US-led airstrikes killed as many as 137 civilians this week.

Relatives and friends bury the body of Khadeer Hassan, who was killed during fighting between Iraqi security forces and Islamic State militants on the western side of Mosul, Iraq, Saturday, March 25, 2017.
Felipe Dana/AP
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Residents of the Iraqi city of Mosul say a series of airstrikes carried out there in recent weeks by the US-led coalition against the Islamic State could have killed as many as 200 civilians, in what would be the highest civilian death toll in a US-led air campaign since the peak of the Iraq war.

Iraqi rescue workers Saturday were combing through the rubble of a building where residents say as many as 137 civilians were killed in a single airstrike last week, in a part of the city now under coalition control, reported the Washington Post. The US military said it was investigating “conflicting allegations” regarding a strike that occurred sometime between March 17 and March 23. 

"We will continue to assess the allegations and determine what if any role a coalition strike may have had in that area,” it said in a statement.

Iraqi Brig. Gen. Mohammed Mahmoud, Mosul’s civil defense chief, told the Washington Post that the building was clearly hit by an airstrike.

We are experts in this field,” he said. “We know it’s the coalition. We demand an investigation.”

That airstrike has also halted the Iraqi military’s advance into the ISIS-held Old City, with a spokesman for the Iraqi Federal Police telling Reuters that it would not engage in any new combat operations as it weighed "new offensive plans and tactics” to avoid civilian casualties. 

"We need to make sure that taking out Daesh [Islamic State] from the Old City will not cost unwanted high casualties among civilians. We need surgical accurate operations to target terrorists without causing collateral damage among residents,” the spokesman told the newswire.

The United Nations has also expressed concern over the incident, with humanitarian coordinator for Iraq Lise Grande saying the organization was "stunned by this terrible loss of life,” according to Reuters.

The civilian death toll promises to intensify questions over whether the US military has changed its rules of engagement to deemphasize concern over civilian casualties as it ramps up anti-ISIS operations in Iraq and Syria.

Chris Woods, director of Airwars, a nonprofit that tracks civilian deaths from coalition airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, told the New York Times that in March, ,, well over double the 465 reports of the Obama administration’s last full month in office. 

“We don’t know whether that’s a reflection of the increased tempo of the campaign or whether it reflects changes in the rules of engagement,” he said, while adding that the spike in the death toll “does suggest something has shifted.” 

Military officials deny any change in rules of engagement, while saying US-led airstrikes in the two countries have intensified. They also point to ISIS tactics that include using civilians as human shields, mounting attacks on Iraqi troops from occupied civilian homes, and firing on civilians who attempt to flee the besieged western part of Mosul — tactics that Iraqi authorities say have greatly complicated their operations.

Some of the rise in airstrikes may trace back to a directive issued by a lieutenant general before former President Obama left office. That directive, said an Air Force spokesman for the coalition at a Pentagon press briefing, gave advisors embedded in ground brigades authorization to call in airstrikes without first passing the request through authorities in Baghdad.

"This is something that maintains a very high level of precision, but it also increases the amount of responsiveness for the teams on the ground," said Air Force Col. John Dorrian on Wednesday, according to the Military Times.

But the Trump administration has indicated that it would delegate more discretion on airstrikes to military and intelligence agencies, in a move away from Obama-era procedures that forced officials to go through what they viewed as a burdensome process to obtain White House authorization. That includes airstrikes carried out with drones, as The Christian Science Monitor’s Amanda Hoover noted on March 15:

The Trump administration is considering allowing CIA and military personnel to target and kill Al Qaeda and IS militants without the president’s authority in nations such as Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Afghanistan, sources confirmed to NBC.

"A big goal is getting the White House out of the way of itself," said a senior US official to the Washington Post. "The president believes too much has been centralized in the White House and he wants to push decisions down to the agencies."

Two other reports of civilian deaths stemming from US airstrikes in Syria are already being investigated by the Pentagon, notes The Los Angeles Times. One involves a school located south of Raqqa, where at least 30 civilians reportedly died. In another from the previous week, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says 49 civilians were killed as they received religious instruction at a dining hall near a mosque in Aleppo province; US military officials describe the building as an “Al-Qaeda meeting site” that was not part of the mosque’s complex.