US officials have confirmed that a recent airstrike in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul was launched by the US military, and said that they are investigating reports that the March 17 strike killed scores of civilians—with estimates based on witness and local health official accounts ranging from 100 to 200. US officials did not comment on the number.
If the death toll is as high as 200, it could be among the highest civilian death tolls in an American air mission since the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. Iraq’s military leaders have paused their push to recapture west Mosul from the Islamic State following the incident, the Guardian reports.
In a statement on Saturday, the United States Central Command acknowledged that its air strikes had hit an area where civilian deaths have been reported, according to NPR. Military officials said that a few days after the March 17 strike, a building with civilians in it collapsed in Mosul. “United States officials are seeking to determine whether the airstrikes brought down the building, leaving many Iraqis dead, or the Islamic State used the strikes as an opportunity to detonate an explosive in the building,” the New York Times reports (paywall).
An Iraqi commander told the Times that his men had called in the coalition airstrike to take out snipers on the roofs of three houses in the neighborhood of Mosul Jidideh. He said special forces didn’t know that the houses’ basements were filled with civilians.
While Iraqi officials said that it appeared that the Trump administration had loosened the rules of engagement around airstrikes, Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, told the Times that the rules had not been loosened.
It is notoriously hard to know how many civilians die in the course of war. In November, US Central Command said that the number of civilians killed by US airstrikes in Iraq and Syria is actually more than double what it had previously estimated. At the time, they announced that they would broaden the scope of their investigations and take into account external reports from places other than military channels. The Pentagon said that there have been 220 civilian deaths since the campaign against the Islamic State began in 2014, but independent monitoring groups say that there have been over 2700.
A representative of the World Health Organization based in Jordan told the Associated Press that more than 100 are dead following the March 17 strike. Since the operations in Mosul began in October, he said, have been at least 5,300 people referred to hospitals in and around the city.