- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The U.S. Central Command oversight panel that tracks civilian casualties in the American air war against the Islamic State has been flooded with claims of civilian deaths in the wake of coalition victories in Syria and northern Iraq, U.S. officials said Thursday.

The oversight cell has received claims of civilian casualties associated with U.S. airstrikes on a daily basis since its creation in June, Air Force Brig. Gen. Matthew Isler, assistant deputy commander of Air Forces Central Command, said Wednesday. He said staffers rigorously vet each case, he told reporters during a briefing at the Pentagon.

The creation of the Central Command oversight panel was in direct response to a March 17 U.S. coalition airstrike in western Mosul’s al-Jadida district, in which the U.N. human rights office said at least 140 Iraqi civilians were killed. A subsequent Pentagon investigation found that Islamic State fighters had positioned civilians in the target area as human shields.

Prior to the oversight panel’s creation, command officials in northern Iraq and Syria had taken great strides to prevent or significantly curtail innocent civilians being injured or killed as a result of American airpower in the fight against Islamic State.

In some cases, Air Force pilots would set time delays on their munitions which allows the bombs to penetrate deep into the earth before exploding. That tactic concentrated the ensuing blast onto the designated target while the rest of the explosion would be absorbed by the surrounding area.

In other instances, U.S. air commanders were told to abandon pre-planned airstrikes or time-sensitive strikes against high-value targets, due to concerns over civilian casualties, Gen. Isler said. Yet months after the brutal fight to retake ISIS’s northern Iraqi capital of Mosul and weeks after the fall of Raqqa, the terror group’s so-called capital in Syria, civilian casualty claims continue to pour in.

American and coalition aircraft dropped more bombs on the Islamic State-held Syrian city of Raqqa in a single month than U.S. warplanes fired on Taliban and other extremist groups across all of Afghanistan during the same time frame, according to a September review by Airwars.com, a nonprofit research group focused on tracking civilian casualties tied to the offensive.

Just over 6,000 bombs, shells and missiles targeting fighters from the terror group known as ISIS or ISIL were fired into Raqqa in August — which Airwars officials say resulted in 400 civilian casualties — a tenfold increase of air and artillery strikes launched in the anti-ISIS offensive compared to the earlier month.

On Wednesday, command officials disputed the group’s findings, as well as other tallies configured by other human rights or non-governmental organizations.

“The numbers are not going to match,” said one command official, speaking to reporters on the condition of anonymity, referring to the coalition’s casualty figures compared to those compiled independently.

Since 2014, American and allied forces have carried out over 26,000 airstrikes against suspected Islamic State targets in the region, according to figures compiled by the Defense Department. Officially, U.S. military officials claim coalition airstrikes have resulted in just over 600 civilian deaths.

In some cases, U.S. officials invalidated certain claims of civilian casualties brought to outside investigators, dropping the overall number of deaths in the official casualty count, the command official explained. However those deaths dismissed by command officials remained on the lists created by Airwars and other groups, creating the large difference in accounts, the official added.

But human rights observers claim the uptick in civilian casualty counts were tied to a loosening of the rules of engagement for U.S. airstrikes against ISIS.

On Wednesday, Gen. Isler dismissed such claims noting that American commanders do not “put a human value on a military target, whether it be five civilians or ten civilians.”

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