WASHINGTON, March 28, 2017 —
The death of innocent civilians during war is a terrible tragedy that weighs heavily on everyone, the commander of the coalition effort to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria told Pentagon reporters today.
Speaking from Baghdad via teleconference, Army Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, commander of Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve, addressed reports of civilian casualties on March 17 in Mosul, Iraq.
Townsend said the coalition takes all casualty reports “very seriously” and uses a deliberate approach to assess every one and report the results publicly. Air Force Brig. Gen. Matthew C. Isler is leading a credibility assessment now under way on the reported civilian casualties, which could lead to a formal investigation, he added.
“Right now there are a lot of conflicting reports [about] what brought down the building or buildings that caused civilian casualties,” Townsend said. “What we know for sure is we did conduct a strike in that area. What we don’t know for certain is if that strike is responsible for the casualties in question.”
The general noted reports that ISIS might have trapped civilians in a house and rigged it to blow up and that a secondary vehicle-borne homemade bomb might have destroyed the house.
“It could have been a combination of events that caused this tragedy, and that’s why we’re hesitant to say anything definitive until our proper process is completed,” Townsend said.
“I’ll say this: If we did it – and there’s a fair chance that we did – it was an unintentional accident of war, and we will transparently report it to you when we’re ready,” the general said.
Highest Regard For Civilians
The coalition freely and transparently takes on the responsibility to act in accordance with the law of armed conflict in all operations, Townsend told reporters.
“We set the highest standards for protecting civilians,” he said. “It is my view that our dedication, diligence and discipline in prosecuting our combat operations while protecting civilians is without precedent in the recorded history of warfare.”
Townsend described the battle in the old city of Mosul as the most significant urban combat to take place since World War II. “It is tough and brutal, [with] house-by-house, block-by-block fighting,” he said.
The coalition commander said the battle to defeat ISIS is a brutal fight on multiple fronts, and the most difficult he’s seen in his career.
“Although our partners and the coalition have made mistakes that have harmed civilians, we have never targeted them -- not once,” Townsend said. “On the other hand, the savages that are ISIS deliberately target, terrorize and kill innocent civilians every day. The best and fastest way to end this human suffering is to quickly liberate these cities and Iraq and Syria from ISIS.”
Despite the intensity of the fighting, Iraqi security forces continue to press ISIS on multiple axes, presenting them with multiple dilemmas, the general said, adding that the enemy cannot respond to the approach.
Progress Made In Syria
In Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces have completely isolated the east side of Raqqa, and they are engaged in a tough battle to seize Tabqah and Tabqah dam, Townsend told reporters.
“Yesterday, they completed the seizure of Tabqah airfield,” he said. “This was a great accomplishment by a capable partner force. They were supported by coalition advisers, U.S. and coalition airpower, Marine heavy artillery and Army Apache helicopter gunships.”
(Follow Terri Moon Cronk on Twitter: @MoonCronkDoD)