The United States Central Command is finalizing a report expected to conclude that for the second time since the war against the self-proclaimed Islamic State began, a coalition airstrike has killed civilians, two defense officials told The Daily Beast.
According to a CENTCOM document (PDF) acquired by the blog War Is Boring outlining reported civilian casualties through May 1, the March 13 strike in the northern Iraqi city of Hatra, southwest of Mosul, targeted an ISIS checkpoint. Officials first received word of possible civilian casualties when a woman came forward and sought compensation for her car, which she said was damaged by the strike.
The initial report found that two women and three children might have been hit by the attack. By April 24, CENTCOM official concluded the claims were “likely credible,” according to the document. A defense official told The Daily Beast the final report will likely conclude that far fewer were killed by the strike but could not say how many.
CENTCOM officials said they do not talk about civilian casualties until it completes its report, which could be released by the end of the month.
The question of civilian casualties has plagued the U.S.-led effort since the campaign against ISIS began. Many are dubious of the coalition’s claim that it has killed two civilians in 6,500 strikes over a 15-month effort.
The coalition is conducting strikes in communities where the difficulty of differentiating civilian from fighter increases the likelihood civilians will be killed, critics note. And the war in Iraq offered observers a chance to witness firsthand the myriad ways mistakes can happen in combat.
So far, the U.S. has admitted one incident, the killing of two children in a November 2014 strike in Syria. CENTCOM published its findings in May.
Moreover, several groups have suggested a far higher number. AirWars, for example, concluded in May that there have been as many as 459 civilians killed in Iraq and Syria, based on its review of local reports. And the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has observers on the ground, has said it has received reports of two dozens deaths from coalition strikes in the last two months alone.
But with no coalition forces, few NGOs and other watchdog groups on the ground, no one can independently confirm or refute either the U.S. military or AirWars’ statistic.
Assessing from public documents is just as difficult. The U.S. military has not provided details about where it conducts strikes. Its daily updates can be as far as 50 kilometers off the actual site, making it difficult to confirm independently the outcome of strikes.
Other coalition members offer even fewer details. And even if such strike details were available, much of Syria has become a no-go zone for anyone not backed by the fighting faction controlling a particular area, making it impossible to make on-the-ground independent assessments.
Perhaps most importantly, nobody on Capitol Hill or in the international community is pushing aggressively for an accurate count. And with that, the human toll of what is, in part, supposed to be a humanitarian effort is as opaque as the war fighting itself.
CENTCOM officials have said repeatedly they are diligent about avoiding civilian casualties and investigating claims however they are made—by NGOs, on Twitter, or in press reports.
The U.S. had investigated 71 allegations of civilian casualties as of August 28, CENTCOM said. Sixty-three percent of those are for strikes in Iraq. Of the 71 cases, 10 remain open—five in Iraq and five in Syria.
“Our method of tracking civilian casualties shows U.S. Central Command’s commitment to taking all allegations seriously,” said a U.S. Central Command spokeswoman. “We want to be transparent in our process and we review whatever information we have about an allegation, including information provided by a third party. We do our best to be precise in the application of our airstrikes. We take great care, from analysis of available intelligence to selection of the appropriate weapon to meet mission requirements, in order to minimize the risk of collateral damage, especially any potential harm to non-combatant civilians.”
Indeed, War Is Boring’s acquisition of CENTCOM’s investigation of civilian casualties, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act , is the most detailed insight into CENTCOM’s approach that has been publicly available. The document outlines the first 45 claims; there have been 23 more since May 1.
The document, which spells out when allegations are received, details how many civilians could be involved and when a report is deemed credible or not. The 45 cases total as many as 325 civilian casualties. The most common reason claims are deemed “not credible” is that coalition strikes do not happen at the same place a civilian death is claimed, suggesting some may be confusing coalition strikes with those by Syrian President Bashar al Assad.
Defenders of the coalition note that no one else in the fight against ISIS is trying to avoid civilian casualties as much as the coalition.
“ISIS certainly isn’t,” noted a third defense official.