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In letter to Mattis, lawmaker and former JAG demands answers on civilian casualties

In a sign of mounting concern over civilian deaths, a U.S. lawmaker sent a letter this week to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis requesting details on how the Trump administration is waging its air campaign against the Islamic State.

The letter from Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), a former Air Force lawyer and member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, comes as military officials defend the conduct of their ongoing operation in Iraq and Syria amid a surge in reported casualties linked to U.S. strikes. The incidents, which include an alleged strike on a mosque in Syria and the bombing of a building apparently packed with civilians in the Iraqi city of Mosul, have raised questions about how the new administration will move forward with what it has said will be a more aggressive approach to counterterrorism.

While U.S. Central Command says its assessments have concluded that about 220 civilians have been killed in thousands of U.S. strikes since 2014, activists say the number is much higher. Airwars, a British-based group that tracks events in the air war, says that about 1,000 deaths have been alleged in March alone in Iraq and Syria. Airwars is one of a number of civil society groups that has pressed the U.S. military to review its procedures in light of the recent reports.

In his letter, Lieu drew attention to comments that President Trump made in the run-up to his election, including his assertion that the United States should "take out" militants' families and "bomb the s–" out of the Islamic State.

"The substantial increases in civilian deaths caused by U.S. military force in Syria and Iraq brings into question whether the Trump administration is violating the Law of War," he said. "The large number of civilian casualties also suggests a possible breakdown in target selection, intelligence gathering, and operational execution."

Other lawmakers have voiced concerns about the reported increase. On Wednesday, Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of U.S. Central Command (Centcom), told members of the House Armed Services Committee that officials under his command were now authorized to approve strikes at a lower level than they had been in the past but that he remained confident about the safeguards in place.

Military officials have said the intensity of the operations against the militant group, which is defending itself in the densely populated western area of Mosul and preparing for a final battle in the Syrian city of Raqqa, may have contributed to the reports of increased casualties.

Addressing Mattis, a veteran combat commander and former Centcom boss himself, Lieu requested answers to detailed questions about how the campaign is being conducted. He asked for an overview of how military lawyers review targets before they are hit and whether those lawyers' recommendations have been overruled at any point. He also asked Mattis to detail how intelligence provided by Iraqi or Syrian partners is cross-checked to avoid fatal mistakes.

"I am deeply concerned that the death of innocent children and women from U.S. airstrikes sets us back strategically, makes it more difficult to secure peace, and increases terrorist recruitment," he said.

Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said the Defense Department would review and respond to the letter.

[Source: By Missy Ryan, The Washington Post, 30Mar17]

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War in Afghanistan & Iraq
small logoThis document has been published on 05Apr17 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.