By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. military said on Tuesday it had received 18 complaints of civilian casualties in air strikes against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, but concluded that 13 of the cases were not credible and was still reviewing the other five.
The Pentagon has said it takes allegations of civilian casualties seriously and investigates them, but in the past military officials had played down such reports.
"We ... apply very rigorous standards in our targeting process to prevent civilian casualties in the first place," said Sergeant First Class Sheryl Lawry, a spokeswoman for Central Command, which oversees U.S. military forces in the Middle East.
Lawry said nine reports of possible civilian casualties took place in Syria and nine in Iraq. Thirteen of the cases were found to be baseless while five are under further review, including two involving fewer than five deaths that are being investigated more deeply.
She said the two cases under closer investigation were the result of the U.S. military's own internal review process and were not based on allegations from outside the Department.
The United States had carried out 1,350 air strikes against Islamic State militants as of Monday night, 687 in Iraq and 663 in Syria. U.S. coalition partners have carried out 309 attacks, of which 237 were in Iraq, a Pentagon spokeswoman said.
Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said the Pentagon believed the strikes had killed several hundred militants, but he said it could not track all of the casualties and killing was not the aim.
The strikes began in August after Islamic State militants seized part of northwestern Iraq and Baghdad and asked for U.S. help.
President Barack Obama has authorized more than 3,000 U.S. troops to advise Iraqi forces and train 12 brigades of Iraqi troops, including three from Kurdish peshmerga forces.
He also approved a mission for the U.S. military to train and equip a moderate force of Syrian rebels to counter Islamic State militants in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad is locked in fighting with his opponents.
Kirby said the military had made progress toward identifying suitable rebels and a training mission could begin this spring. The Pentagon intends to train about 5,000 rebels a year for three years at sites in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
(Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by David Storey, Tom Brown and Gunna Dickson)