The U.S. military is not considering immediate changes to procedures governing airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, officials said on Monday, as the Pentagon defends the conduct of its air campaign against the Islamic State following a spike in reported civilian deaths.
Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of U.S. Central Command (Centcom), “is not looking into changing the way we operate, other than to say our processes are good and we want to make sure we live by those processes,” said Col. John Thomas, a spokesman for the command.
Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon, Thomas said that Centcom, which oversees the campaigns in Iraq and Syria, sought to use existing military guidelines “to discriminate appropriately civilian targets from military targets.”
The comments come as military officials respond to allegations of increased casualties, deepening questions about how the Trump administration will balance the president’s pledge to accelerate the defeat of the Islamic State with the military’s promise to protect civilian life.
According to Airwars, a British monitoring group, the frequency of civilian deaths alleged to be linked to U.S. strikes in Iraq and Syria has now outpaced those linked to Russia. The scrutiny has been compounded by a string of high-profile reported U.S. attacks in both countries, including assaults on a mosque, a school, and, most recently, a building apparently used as a shelter in the Iraqi city of Mosul.
The U.S. military is investigating those incidents.
Asked Monday about the spike in reported incidents in Mosul, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the United States does more than any nation to protect civilians from errant attacks.
“We go out of our way to always do everything humanly possible to reduce the loss of life or injury among innocent people,” he said at the Pentagon. “The same cannot be said for our adversaries and that is up to you to sort out.”
Military officials reject suggestions that the Trump administration, which is taking steps to establish a more aggressive approach to counterterrorism operations, may have relaxed restrictions on airstrikes. They blame militants for concealing themselves among civilians and using residents as human shields.
While Votel is not exploring any near-term shift in rules for the ongoing air war, officials did not rule out future changes. As part of a review of the current strategy against the Islamic State, President Trump asked commanders in a Jan. 28 memorandum to explore loosening restrictions imposed by the Obama administration that were designed to protect civilians. Officials are discussing proposed changes to that overall strategy.
Military officials said that any changes that may occur would not alter the air campaign’s compliance with international law and would seek to keep civilian deaths to a minimum.
Despite U.S. denials, the perception of a shift in American tactics has persisted on the ground, including during Iraqi forces’ battle to retake remaining militant-held areas of Mosul.
Officials in Mosul have called on the U.S.-led coalition to use more caution and less heavy ordinance in the dense urban area. Iraqi police forces are closing in on the Old City, where 400,000 civilians are estimated to be trapped among narrow streets of tightly packed buildings. Iraqi forces on the ground call in airstrikes from the U.S.-led coalition as they are advancing.
On Monday, Iraqi civil defense teams were hunting through the rubble in neighborhoods of western Mosul, attempting to retrieve the bodies of hundreds of residents who died as Iraqi forces advanced with the backing of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes.
In the Mosul al-Jadida neighborhood, one of the worst-hit areas, the U.S.-led coalition has admitted carrying out an airstrike on March 17 that is alleged to have resulted in mass civilian casualties. It said it was targeting Islamic State fighters and equipment.
Rescue teams on Sunday finished excavating a main building that residents say was hit in that strike — recovering 101 bodies. Residents in a nearby street also accused coalition strikes of wiping out entire families over a period of several days when they described the bombardment as hellish.
Reporters have been banned from the scene since the incident was publicized, and Iraqi authorities have offered their version of events, saying the building was booby-trapped and blown up by Islamic State fighters.
“Initial results are opposite from the rumors that have been published,” Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said Monday. “No one is more keen to protect civilians than us.”
There have also been reports of numerous civilians killed in U.S. strikes in Syria, where American forces are working with local forces ahead of an expected offensive on Raqqa, the Islamic State stronghold there.
The United States has gradually increased the number of troops it has in Syria, including in an area west of Raqqa, where a major dam has been the site of fierce clashes.
Reports that the Tabqa dam, which U. S-backed Syrian forces are seeking to recapture, has also been hit by airstrikes have contributed to a sense of panic in the area.
On Sunday, the Islamic State issued a warning that the dam could burst because maintenance teams were no longer able to reach it.
In the city of Raqqa, downstream from the dam, residents have been terrified by the intensified bombing and of the risk of a dam breach. Hundreds of Raqqa residents fled into the desert Sunday after the Islamic State warned on its Amaq News Agency site that the dam could “collapse at any moment.” The exodus halted after the Islamic State erected checkpoints to prevent people from leaving.
“People don’t know what to do,” said one Syrian living in Turkey who is from Raqqa and is in regular contact with his family and friends there.
The U.S. military says that no major damage has been done to the dam. Thomas said the United States had adjusted its air operations to protect the site.
“We are being conscious to use munitions . . . that don’t have a significant blast effect to try to very much use the minimum force and explosive force necessary,” he said.
Morris reported from Irbil. Liz Sly contributed to this report from Beirut.