General: U.S. airstrikes may have killed Mosul civilians

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Residents carry the body of several people killed during fights between Iraq security forces and Islamic State on the western side of Mosul, Iraq, March 24, 2017. (AP)

WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. airstrikes probably played a role in the death of dozens of civilians in Mosul earlier this month, but an ongoing investigation may reveal a more complicated explanation, the top commander of American forces in Iraq said Tuesday. One possibility is that Islamic State militants rigged the building with explosives.

Speaking from Baghdad to reporters at the Pentagon, Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend said a recent spate of civilian casualties in Mosul was "fairly predictable" given the densely populated urban neighborhoods that Islamic State fighters are defending against Iraqi government troops.

The civilian deaths cannot be attributed to any loosening of American military rules of combat, he said, and Washington hasn't decided to tolerate greater risk of civilian casualties in U.S. airstrikes.

Witnesses say the March 17 explosions may have killed at least 100 people. And Amnesty International on Tuesday said the rising death toll suggested the U.S.-led coalition isn't taking adequate precautions as it helps Iraqi forces try to retake the city. The Pentagon arranged a short-notice briefing by Townsend amid the growing chorus of criticism.

Defending U.S. precautions against civilian deaths, Townsend acknowledged the U.S. conducted multiple airstrikes in the area of the explosions. Coupled with initial inquiries done by U.S. technical experts who visited the scene, he said: "My initial assessment is that we probably had a role in these casualties."

But Townsend said the type of munitions used by the U.S. in the airstrikes should not have been able to bring down the entire building, raising questions about the level of the American involvement.

U.S. officials also are assessing the possibility that IS forced civilians to gather there to act as human shields or to lure the U.S. into attacking, he added.

"It sure looks like they were," Townsend said. Another possibility he said was being examined: That IS filled the building with explosives.

In the most extensive U.S. explanation of what is known about the event, Townsend stressed that no one should think it was a deliberate U.S. act.

"If we did it — and I'd say there is at least a fair chance we did — it was an unintentional accident of war," he said.

The fight for western Mosul began in December after Iraqi security forces pushed IS out of the eastern side of the Tigris River city. In recent weeks, IS defenders have packed into neighborhoods with narrow streets and trapped civilians, Townsend said.

"It is there that the enemy has invested two-and-a-half years of defensive preparations," he said. "It is there that the fighting has gotten extraordinarily brutal." He called it the "toughest phase" of the war.

"I think that's really the explanation for the civilian casualties," Townsend added. "Civilians are there. Some of them have been able to escape. Those that have not been able to escape are held against their will" or are afraid to try to leave.

"Although our partners and the coalition have made mistakes that harmed civilians, we have never targeted them -- not once," he said.

Townsend also said he believes U.S. airstrikes are not to blame in a separate instance of alleged civilian casualties, in Syria. A leading Syrian opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, has said it believes coalition forces were behind an airstrike March 21 alleged to have killed at least 30 civilians in a school outside of Raqqa, Syria.

"I think that was a clean strike," Townsend said, adding that the allegation that those targeted in the building were civilians is "going to play out to be unfounded."