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Pentagon wrongly admitted to killing 21 civilians in Iraq and Syria: Report

According to Airwars, nine of the 11 air strikes reported by the Pentagon in 2020 were not carried out by US, but by other countries in coalition against Islamic State group
Smoke billows following an air strike on the western frontline of Raqqa on 17 July 2017.
Smoke billows following an air strike on the western frontline of Raqqa on 17 July 2017 (AFP)
By MEE staff in Washington

The US defence department has withdrawn a part of an official report to Congress after wrongly claiming responsibility for killing 21 civilians in Iraq and Syria who were instead killed by American allies.

The Pentagon admitted its mistake on Thursday after a review of its findings, and the report is no longer available on its website.

"This was an oversight in preparing data for the report," Pentagon spokesperson Mike Howard told The Intercept. "We regret the mistake."

The findings in question were a part of the Pentagon's annual report for 2020 on civilian casualties and injuries from US actions, which was released on 28 May. Reporting to Congress on civilian harm globally has been a legal requirement for the defence department since 2018.

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The 2020 report said that the US had killed 23 civilians worldwide throughout the year. It also takes responsibility for the death of 50 civilians in 11 air strikes conducted from January 2017 to February 2018 in Iraq and Syria.

"Although military operations to defeat ISIS are a Coalition effort, coordinated between many nations, this report only lists civilian casualties attributed to the use of US-operated weapons," the report said, using another term for the Islamic State (IS) group.

However, an investigation by Airwars and The Intercept found that nine of those strikes were not carried out by the US, but were conducted by allies - including Australia, France, and the United Kingdom - in the US-led coalition against the IS group.

Airwars, which tracks "civilian harm from airpower-dominated international military actions", alerted the defence department about the error in early June, and on 5 August, the Pentagon released an addendum that removed those nine incidents.

"The text and table in the report provided in May 2021 … should be omitted and replaced because only two of the eleven incidents on the original table were 'attributed to the use of US-operated weapons'," the addendum said.

The Pentagon and US Central Command (Centcom) did not respond to Middle East Eye's request for comment on where the error originated from by the time of publication.

'Moral responsibility'

The mistake adds to growing concerns over the Pentagon's civilian harm policies.

Following the release of the 2020 report on civilian casualties to Congress, a number of senior Democrats in the House and Senate slammed the findings, saying that it underestimated the number of civilians killed.

They also criticised the American military's failure to adequately compensate the families of victims who were killed as a result of US actions.

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"Ending the forever wars starts with recognizing the humanity of the people who these wars have harmed. The Pentagon is always coming hat in hand begging for billions, yet last year they didn’t spend a penny of this fund Congress established to help fulfill our moral responsibility and build goodwill around the world," Congressman Ro Khanna said in June, adding that the lack of condolence payments was "unconscionable".

Khanna later wrote a letter with Senator Elizabeth Warren calling on the US military to overhaul how it tracks civilian casualties.

The US-led international coalition was formed in August 2014 in response to the Iraqi government's request for assistance in confronting IS.

Though the coalition consists of troops from more than 80 countries, the US accounts for the lion's share of forces.

In 2019, the US-led coalition admitted to killing 1,302 civilians in its fight against IS in Iraq and Syria since 2014. Airwars and Amnesty International, however, placed the actual civilian death toll to be much higher, reporting that at least 1,600 civilians were killed during a four-month period in the Syrian city of Raqqa alone.

Still, despite the accusations of underreporting civilian deaths, other coalition countries have taken even less responsibility. The UK has acknowledged blame for only one civilian death in the fight against IS, while France has admitted to none.

In Mali, the French government is facing renewed pressure after witness testimony and forensic evidence corroborated earlier reports that the French army bombed a civilian gathering in the village of Bounti in central Mali on 3 January 2021, instead of a gathering of military targets as it has claimed.

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