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Civilian deaths 'fact of life' in war on IS, says Pentagon chief

'We do everything humanly possible, consistent with military necessity, taking many chances to avoid civilian casualties - at all costs'
US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis (AFP/file photo)

Civilian casualties are inevitable in the war against the Islamic State (IS) group but the United States is doing "everything humanly possible" to avoid them, US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said in an interview aired on Sunday.

A US-led international coalition has been carrying out air strikes against the IS group in Iraq and Syria since 2014, and nongovernmental organisations say the attacks are claiming ever more civilian lives.

Interviewed on CBS's "Face the Nation" programme, Mattis said that "civilian casualties are a fact of life in this sort of situation".

But he quickly added that "we do everything humanly possible, consistent with military necessity, taking many chances to avoid civilian casualties - at all costs."

Some NGOs have blamed the rising civilian death toll on a push by President Donald Trump's administration to accelerate the pace of combat in an effort to "annihilate" the extremists.

But the Pentagon contests both the NGOs' death counts and the charge that a new sense of urgency under Trump is to blame.

"We have not changed the rules of engagement," Mattis said. "There is no relaxation of our intention to protect the innocent."

Still, Mattis added: “Probably the most important thing we're doing now is we're accelerating this fight. We're accelerating the tempo of it. We are going to squash the enemy's ability to give some indication that they're, that they have invulnerability, that they can exist, that they can send people off to Istanbul, to Belgium, to Great Britain and kill people with impunity,” according to the CBS transcript of the interview.

The coalition has officially acknowledged responsibility for more than 450 civilian deaths since its bombing campaign began in 2014, including 105 in the Iraqi city of Mosul on 17 March.

However, Airwars - a London-based collective of journalists and researchers that tracks civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria - reports that coalition strikes have killed at least 3,681 people.

Although the Pentagon on Thursday acknowledged that the American bombing attack in Mosul on 17 March claimed at least 105 civilian lives, it blamed munitions stored by the IS militants in the houses targeted.

That, Mattis said on Sunday, showed "once again the callous disregard that is characterised by every operation they have run".

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