WASHINGTON (AP) — A U.S. air attack on an Islamic State checkpoint in Iraq in March probably killed four civilians, possibly including a child, according to findings released Friday from a U.S. military investigation.
Investigators concluded that the checkpoint was a valid target and that the attack did not violate international laws governing armed conflict.
"All reasonable measures were taken to avoid unintended deaths of, or injuries to, noncombatants," Central Command spokesman Col. Patrick Ryder said.
Ryder told reporters that the four civilians emerged from two vehicles parked at the checkpoint after the A-10 attack plane released its weapons. Their presence inside the vehicles had not been known, Ryder said, at the time the attack was authorized.
The four were in addition to the drivers of the two vehicles, who had gotten out and spoken with IS checkpoint personnel for about 40 minutes. Because of the interaction between the drivers and the checkpoint personnel, the drivers were deemed to be associated with IS and therefore were valid targets.
Post-strike analysis of A-10 video footage indicated that the four people who had been undetected inside the vehicles "exited the two vehicles after the aircrews released weapons on the target and immediately before the weapons impacted the target area," an executive summary of the investigation report said. "Video footage review indicates the aircrew had no opportunity to detect the presence of the likely civilians" before the weapons hit the target area.
A Central Command statement expressed regret for what it called the unintentional loss of civilian lives. The allegation of civilian casualties from the attack was initially raised by an unidentified woman who emailed an international humanitarian group to complain that it had killed two women and three children.
Several other allegations of civilian casualties linked to U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and Syria are under investigation.
The four deaths raise to six the total number of civilian deaths the U.S. military has acknowledged causing in its airstrikes against Islamic State militants.
Ryder stressed that great care is taken to avoid civilian casualties, and he contrasted that with the approach taken by the Russian air force in its recent airstrikes in Syria. He said the Russians are using unguided, or "dumb," bombs that inevitably create unintended damage and casualties.
"When you drop a large number of bombs — dumb bombs — on targets, chances are pretty good you're going to destroy what you were trying to strike, especially if you're doing it from a large number of aircraft," Ryder said. "However, you also are going to create a large amount of collateral damage. We're talking about World War II tactics here, versus 21st century precision targeting."
Russia, which has conducted an air campaign in Syria since Sept. 30, began intensifying it Tuesday following confirmation that a Russian Metrojet plane in Egypt was downed by a bomb, which the Islamic State group said it had planted. All 224 people aboard the plane, mostly Russian tourists, were killed.
Ryder said that while the Russian airstrikes in recent days have targeted more Islamic State areas, including its oil infrastructure, the majority of Russian attacks are still against moderate opposition forces fighting against the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Ryder strongly defended the U.S. air campaign, saying it is beginning to take a heavy toll on the Islamic State group and its ability to carry out offensive military operations. He said coalition aircraft dropped approximately 980 bombs in the week ended Nov. 17, which he said is the largest number for any seven-day period since the war began in August 2014. This reflects an increase in offensive action by local ground forces, such as the push by Iraqi Kurdish forces to retake Sinjar in western Iraq and the gains made by Syrian Arab rebels in the al-Hawl area of northeastern Syria.