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U.S. Airstrike Killed Iraqis by Accident, Officials Say

An airstrike that mistakenly killed Iraqi troops on Friday was carried out by an American plane, United States officials said on Saturday.

The episode poses a fresh challenge to the Obama administration's efforts to expand cooperation with the Iraqis in fighting the Islamic State, and Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter was quick to call the Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, to express his condolences and invite Iraq to participate in an investigation.

Mr. Carter did not offer a detailed explanation for the errant airstrike, which killed nine Iraqi soldiers and one officer, according to Iraq's defense minister. But Mr. Carter said, "It seemed to be a mistake that involved both sides."

"These kind of things can happen when you are fighting side by side as we are, on a dynamic battlefield," Mr. Carter told reporters aboard the Kearsarge, an assault ship deployed in the Persian Gulf.

Another American official, who asked for anonymity to discuss an episode under investigation, said the plane that carried out the attack was a B-1B bomber, which dropped several bombs as it was supporting Iraqi forces battling Islamic State fighters near Falluja. At least one of those bombs, it appears, struck the Iraqi troops.

Bad weather may have been a contributing factor, American and Iraqi officials say. With fog in the area, it may have been difficult for reconnaissance drones or aircraft to keep track of the shifting Iraqi positions. A third American official said the Iraqi troops appeared to have been closer to the target area than the Americans had realized.

There have been few instances of "friendly fire" in Iraq since the American-led campaign against the Islamic State, also known as ISIL or ISIS, began last year. One important military question raised by the attack is whether the risk of such episodes might be reduced by deploying teams of air controllers with the Iraqi forces, particularly when Iraqi troops are fighting with the Islamic State in urban areas or at close quarters.

Seeking to minimize the risk of American casualties, the Obama administration decided early in the campaign that the American advisers and trainers who are assisting Iraqi troops would work inside the confines of several large bases in Iraq. But that has meant that American commanders have had to rely on aircraft to confirm the targeting information provided by Iraqi troops instead of on American air controllers on the battlefield.

A broader political question is whether the episode will make it harder for Mr. Abadi to accept an expanded role for the United States, which is seeking to speed up the campaign against the Islamic State. Mr. Carter told Congress this month that the Obama administration was prepared to support the Iraqi military with Apache attack helicopters in its fight to reclaim Ramadi. He also said the administration was ready to deploy advisers with select Iraqi brigades.

"The United States is prepared to assist the Iraqi Army with additional unique capabilities to help them finish the job, including attack helicopters and accompanying advisers, if circumstances dictate and if requested by Prime Minister Abadi," Mr. Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Mr. Abadi, however, has been weakened by a series of political struggles with his rivals, and has come under pressure from Shiite politicians who are close to Iran to reject a greater United States military role in Iraq. He did not take up the Pentagon on its offer when he met with Mr. Carter on Wednesday.

But American officials hope that Mr. Abadi will agree to the use of Apache helicopters and advisers for future operations, which are expected to be more challenging as Iraqi forces look toward the battle for Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city.

The political dynamics in Iraq were clear with the divergent response to the airstrike. Hakim al-Zamili, the chairman of the Iraqi Parliament's defense and security committee and a political supporter of the anti-United States Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, provided a far higher toll than the Defense Ministry's and demanded an investigation.

Mr. Abadi, however, accepted Mr. Carter's explanation that the episode was a genuine mistake, and expressed hope that politicians in Iraq and elsewhere would not try to exploit the airstrike for their own purposes, according to the Americans' account of the phone call from Mr. Carter to Mr. Abadi.

"He and I both expressed regret over the incident and also determination to continue the campaign to expel ISIL from Iraqi territory," Mr. Carter said.

There are signs, however, that the political debate over the incident might linger, as even Iraqi officials who work closely with the Americans say there must strict accountability.

According to the Iraqi military, the Iraqis turned to the American-led coalition for air support during the fight because bad weather precluded the use of Iraqi airpower. The American plane carried out two strikes, which resulted in a significant number of Islamic State casualties and enabled the Iraqi force to quickly advance. But the coalition that did not realize that the Iraqi troops had moved forward when a third strike occurred.

Khaled al-Obeidi, Iraq's defense minister issued a statement on Saturday saying that Iraqis would carry out their own inquiry to determine whether Iraqi forces or the coalition was at fault for failing to update the information on the position of the Iraqi troops. The Iraqi government, he said, will not tolerate the loss of "Iraqi blood."

[Source: By Michael R. Gordon, The New York Times, Aboard the U.S.S. Kearsarge, 19Dec15]

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War in Afghanistan & Iraq
small logoThis document has been published on 21Dec15 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.