The U.S. military investigation of the March 17 coalition air strike on Mosul’s al-Jadidah district, alleged to have killed as many as 278 people, concluded Thursday that just over 100 people were killed in the strike. Until Thursday, the coalition would only confirm that a strike took place on the site in question, but wouldn’t give details on casualty numbers.
Matthew Isler, the Air Force brigadier general who oversaw the probe, said 101 civilians were killed inside the building—a two-story house—four in a neighboring building and 36 are still unaccounted for.
While the military’s conclusion is much more realistic than the prior estimate that only 14 people died in the strike, it has stuck by the contention that its own bombs were not enough to cause all the casualties, claiming the Islamic State had stored explosives in the building where the scores of civilians were hiding.
“This investigation determined that ISIS deliberately staged explosives and snipers to harm civilians,” Isler said.
Prior to the strike, Iraqi forces stationed about 100 meters away also say they saw ISIS snipers on the second story of the building, but Isler said there were blind spots preventing the coalition from seeing the entire house, and that in the two days leading up to the strike weather conditions made overhead surveillance impossible.
Seven witnesses and survivors of the March 17 strike, however, told the Associated Press none of that ever happened and that the Islamic State was not anywhere near the house in question.
One witness, Khaled—who gave only his first name for fear of reprisal from ISIS—had been forced from his home by ISIS fighters and took refuge in the building for two days before the deadly American strike. Khaled said he left the house on the afternoon of Mar. 16, one day before the incident, because it was overcrowded. He angrily rejected the White House account of the strike.
“Liars! Is it logical that I would stay in a house with explosives?” Khaled asked.
Other witnesses described being forced to hide in the building, not because ISIS fighters pushed them inside, but because few structures remain standing amid the U.S.-led coalition’s air campaign; there are ever-fewer places to hide. They said the building made a good hiding place because it was off the main road and because it was only two stories tall, making it an unlikely sniper position and therefore an unlikely target of an airstrike.
Aside from the eyewitness accounts, the idea that more explosives were needed to cause the house to collapse is a dubious one. The coalition dropped a 500-pound bomb on a flimsy house in Mosul’s Old City, by any estimate that would be enough to destroy the structure.
This is what a 500-pound JDAM can do:
While the Pentagon says it takes responsibility for the strike, the claims of ISIS explosives are an obvious attempt to place culpability elsewhere.
“We regret the unintentional loss of civilian lives […] and express our deepest sympathies to the families and others affected by these strikes,” the Pentagon said in a prior statement.
Combined with the recent probe, the Pentagon acknowledges around 460 civilian casualties in operations in both Iraq and Syria since 2014, a figure far lower than estimates from outside monitor groups. Airwars, a monitor based in London, for example, estimates that number to be around 3,000, while Iraq Body Count says 8,600 have died just in Iraq’s Nineveh province since last October.
After the March 17 strike, the Pentagon put a pause on operations in Mosul to reevaluate its use of air power. The investigation recommended the coalition create a team dedicated to assessing and investigating civilian casualties, and Brigadier General Isler said the coalition has adapted its intelligence gathering tactics to better identify where civilians are located.
Because little information comes out of Mosul, it is difficult to assess whether or not the coalition’s efforts to curb civilian deaths have been effective, but with operations in the city winding down, perhaps Mosul’s civilians will finally get a reprieve from the fighting.
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