Pentagon Reveals Results Of Probe Into Deadly Mosul Airstrike

May 25, 2017
Originally published on May 26, 2017 2:20 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In March, a single U.S. airstrike in Iraq killed more than 100 civilians. And it raises questions about how it happened and why. Today the Pentagon gave its answer. NPR national security correspondent David Welna is here to tell us more. And David, I understand this was an airstrike on the city of Mosul. What do you know about what happened?

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Well, Audie, this is really kind of a cautionary tale about the perils of trying to evict ISIS from a densely populated stronghold. And that's exactly what the al-Jadida district was on the west side of Mosul, which is where all of this happened. A Pentagon inquiry made public today found that two months ago, Iraqi forces had come under fire from two snipers atop a two-story house there, so the Iraqis asked the U.S.-led coalition force to send in an airstrike to neutralize them.

Now, according to Air Force Brigadier General Matthew Isler, who led the investigation, neither the Americans nor the Iraqi forces were aware that there were civilians in that house. So according to Isler, a U.S. aircraft dropped a 500-pound guided bomb called a GBU-38 meant only to take out the snipers. But as it turned out, the place was loaded with explosives and civilians. Here's Isler.

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BRIGADIER GENERAL MATTHEW ISLER: The GBU-38 detonated a large amount of explosives in place by ISIS, conservatively more than four times the net explosive weight of the GBU-38, which resulted in the collapse of the structure, the death of 101 civilians within the structure and the death of four civilians in the neighboring structure to the west.

CORNISH: David, how could it be that neither the Americans nor the Iraqi fighters on the ground knew there were so many civilians in that building?

WELNA: Well, according to General Isler there had been bad weather for two days before the airstrike and on the morning it was carried out. So there was none of the full-motion video that U.S. forces would normally use to check for any civilian activity. Instead they relied on the Iraqi forces to be their eyes and ears. But Isler said there were limits to what could be seen.

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ISLER: CTS could see the rear of the house where the snipers and the defensive fighting position were, but they could not see parts of the north-facing front of the house. So there were blind zones. And that's the nature of the urban environment.

CORNISH: So was this a tactic, a case of ISIS intentionally luring U.S. forces to bomb a house packed with civilians?

WELNA: That's certainly what the Pentagon inquiry concludes. And it could well have been a ploy by ISIS to turn residents of Mosul against the forces trying to liberate them from nearly three years of occupation by ISIS.

CORNISH: Now, in this drive to retake Mosul, is there a sense that U.S. forces are taking more chances than they did before now that President Trump is commander in chief?

WELNA: Well, not according to the Pentagon. The authors of this report say the U.S. is operating under exactly the same rules of engagement in place last fall and that nothing's changed. Here's Army Major General Joseph Martin, who was the commanding general of coalition ground forces during that Mosul attack, speaking today from Baghdad.

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MAJOR GENERAL JOSEPH MARTIN: Let me be clear that our objective is always to minimize the risk of collateral damage and any potential harm to noncombatants. It is important to us that we take the time to look closely at this incident and see what lessons we can learn for the future.

WELNA: One lesson, according to another U.S. commander, has been that in the 10 percent of Mosul that's still under ISIS control every house there is now assumed to hold civilians. And yet there's been no recognition of any wrongdoing in this Mosul airstrike by the U.S., and no condolence payments have been made to the families of those who died.

CORNISH: That's NPR national security correspondent David Welna. David, thank you.

WELNA: You're welcome, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.