WASHINGTON — A United States military spokesman said Thursday that Islamic State fighters had been herding local Iraqi residents into buildings in western Mosul, calculating that rising civilian casualties would restrain the United States from using airstrikes to help retake that half of the city, The New York Times reports.
“What you see now is not the use of civilians as human shields,” said Col. Joseph E. Scrocca, a spokesman for the American-led task force that is battling the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. “ISIS is smuggling civilians into buildings so we won’t see them and trying to bait the coalition to attack.”
An episode this week in which Islamic State fighters forced civilians inside a building, killing one who resisted, was observed by American surveillance aircraft. Islamic State fighters then positioned themselves inside the same structure to fire on Iraqi forces, according to an account provided in a briefing for Pentagon reporters by Colonel Scrocca.
No video of the episode was released on Thursday, but he said the video would soon be made public.
The furor over the March 17 American airstrike that led to the collapse of a building in western Mosul, killing scores if not hundreds of Iraqi civilians, as well as Defense Department allegations that Islamic State fighters deliberately placed the civilians in harm’s way, have caused a change in American tactics. “It has caused some adjustments to our procedures,” Colonel Scrocca said, though he declined to say what specific changes had been made.
“This is a discussion that started in a November time-frame, and we started to pursue this. We recognized what we were stepping into,” Gen. Joseph L. Votel, the commander of the United States Central Command, said in an interview Wednesday. “It was actually implemented for eastern Mosul, the whole urban environment, and frankly, as we kind of get ready for Raqqa. We are enabling our on-scene commanders across the area of operations.”
The stepped-up pace for carrying out airstrikes has been welcomed by Iraqi forces, which have suffered enormous casualties in the Mosul operation. In the first 37 days of the Iraqi offensive to take western Mosul, 284 Iraqi troops were killed and more than 1,600 were wounded. During the 100 days that it took Iraqi forces to take the eastern part of the city, 490 Iraqi troops were killed and more than 3,000 were wounded.
The number of Islamic State fighters who have been killed is not known with certainty. But Colonel Scrocca said there were about 2,000 fighters in western Mosul before the recent Iraqi offensive, and that the number of militant fighters was now less that half that size.
General Votel described the decision to let “on-scene commanders” call in airstrikes as a return to the standard doctrine of the United States for conducting urban warfare. He said the new procedures did not weaken protections for civilians.
“We do expect on-scene commanders to use their field-expedient means to make assessments about civilians, and if they can’t satisfy themselves that they are not there, then they bring it up to a higher level and they don’t strike,” he said. Any decision to strike mosques, schools or hospitals where militants may be hiding will continue to require higher-level review.
Still, the sheer volume of American firepower that is being applied in Mosul underscores the risk for the hundreds of thousands of civilians who are believed to be trapped in the areas controlled by the Islamic State in western Mosul. Defense Department officials said the United States-led coalition had carried out attacks with 700 bombs and rockets and another 400 strikes with satellite-guided Himars missiles over the last week in Mosul.
The United States has begun a formal investigation into the March 17 strike and other air attacks in that neighborhood where civilians were injured or killed. American officials have acknowledged that an American airstrike played a role in the March 17 attack. But they have raised the possibility that explosives planted by the Islamic State fighters in the building led to much of the destruction.
Iraq’s Counterterrorism Service has reported two episodes in which it said the Islamic State forced civilians into buildings that were rigged with explosives. The video that the Pentagon has said it will soon release would be the first instance that the United States has independently confirmed and made public.