CENTCOM: Avoiding civilian casualties in Mosul will become more difficult

In a March, 2017 file photo, Gen. Joseph L. Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, listens to opening statements during a hearing on Capitol Hill.


By TARA COPP | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 29, 2017

WASHINGTON — Avoiding civilian casualties in Iraq will become more difficult as the battle to recapture western Mosul from the Islamic State group intensifies, Army Gen. Joseph Votel told House lawmakers on Wednesday.

Votel, who leads U.S. Central Command, was questioned by members of the House Armed Services Committee about the battle for Mosul and other aspects of the military campaign against the Islamic State group in the wake of reports that three U.S. airstrikes, including one on March 17, might have led to the death of hundreds of civilians.

The United States is also investigating whether civilians were killed in an airstrike that destroyed a building in al-Jinah, Syria. The Pentagon has said the strike killed al-Qaida fighters who were meeting there, but the building might have been part of a larger mosque complex. A third report of civilian casualties caused by an airstrike near Raqqa was found not to be credible.

In the Mosul airstrike, it is possible Islamic State fighters had trapped hostages inside the building, rigged it to explode, then purposefully lured U.S. forces to attack it by positioning fighters on the building, Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the top U.S. commander for the campaign against the Islamic State group, said Tuesday. As many as 200 civilians are reported to have been killed in that strike.

On Wednesday, Votel also said it is likely U.S. airstrikes had a role in the civilian deaths March 17. More so, he said, as fighting intensifies in densely populated western Mosul, it will be more difficult to avoid hitting civilians.

“I believe as we move into these urban environments, it is going to become more and more difficult to apply an extraordinarily high standard for certain things we are doing, although we will try,” he said.

As part of a White House review of the campaign to defeat the Islamic State group, it has been reported that loosening the rules of engagement has been considered, including a greater tolerance for civilian casualties. Some rules of engagement, which determine when U.S. forces can fire on combatants, were loosened in December. However, Townsend and Votel said this week that no changes to the rules of engagement were part of the March 17 operations.

Townsend and Votel also said the Islamic State group used civilians in the building as human shields to deter U.S. or coalition jets from hitting their position.

“I do believe they understand our sensitivity to civilian casualties and that they are exploiting that,” Votel told the House Armed Services Committee.

“It’s [the Islamic State group’s] air defense system,” said Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., a committee member.

Mosul is split into an eastern and western half by the Tigris River. Iraqi security forces liberated the eastern half of the city in January, which was not as densely populated nor as heavily fortified by the Islamic State group as the western half, Townsend said Tuesday.

The western half of Mosul still has an estimated 2,000 Islamic State fighters occupying it, according to Air Force Col. John Dorrian, an Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman. But the fighters are more difficult to dislodge from their defenses because of the dense neighborhoods.

“This is the most significant urban combat to take place since World War II,” Townsend told reporters Tuesday. “It is tough and brutal. A house-by-house, block-by-block fight.”

Twitter: @TaraCopp