The senior US commander in Iraq acknowledged on Wednesday that the US-led coalition probably had a role in an explosion in Mosul believed to have killed scores of civilians but said ISIS could also be to blame.
As investigators probe the blast, Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend strongly defended US behavior in the war and pushed back against accusations the United States had loosened safeguards meant to protect civilians as it ramps up the battle against ISIS. Still, he said increases in casualties were to be expected as the war against the insurgents entered its deadliest phase in the cramped, narrow streets of Mosul’s Old City.
“It is the toughest and most brutal close-quarters combat that I have experienced in my 34 years of service,” Townsend told Pentagon reporters, speaking from Iraq.
“What has not changed is our care, our caution … our tolerance from civilian casualties – none of that has changed.” Rights group Amnesty International has said the high civilian toll in Mosul suggested US-led coalition forces had failed to take adequate precautions to prevent civilian deaths.
Investigators combed through the rubble left by a March 17 explosion in al-Jadida district in west Mosul, where Iraqi forces backed by US-led coalition air strikes are fighting to clear ISIS militants from Iraq’s second city.
One line of investigation is whether ISIS rigged explosives that ultimately caused the blast that destroyed buildings. One estimate put the death toll at more than 200 people.
“My initial assessment is that we probably had a role in these casualties,” Townsend told a Pentagon news briefing, speaking by teleconference.
“Now, here’s what I don’t know. What I don’t know is were they (the civilians) gathered there by the enemy? We still have some assessments to do. … I would say this, that it sure looks like they were.”
The United States has about 5,200 troops in Iraq, the Pentagon says. Officials say two more companies of US soldiers, just under 300 troops, are headed to Iraq on a temporary deployment.
Families buried under the rubble: Witnesses on Sunday described horrific scenes of body parts strewn over rubble, residents trying desperately to pull out survivors and other people buried out of reach.—Agencies