Pentagon probes killing of Iraq pro-government fighters

Sunday 02/10/2016
Despite ‘rigorous standards’, worst happened

WASHINGTON - The US military said Wednesday it was conducting an investigation into a US-led coalition air strike that may have killed pro-government Sunni tribal fighters south of Mosul.

Operation Inherent Resolve, the coalition fighting the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, said it had conducted an air strike on a building near Khara'ib Jabr, a village south of Mosul, that was being used by ISIS.

"We are aware of the reports that Sunni tribal fighters were in the building that was struck, and we are taking those reports seriously," OIR said in a statement announcing a joint investigation with Iraqi security forces.

"The coalition takes extraordinary precautions to avoid friendly or civilian casualties, applying rigorous standards in its targeting processes," the statement added.

According to an Iraqi commander and a local minister, the strike killed 21 fighters in a raid around 1:00 am local time Wednesday (2200 GMT Tuesday) east of the town of Qayyarah, which was recaptured from the Islamic State group in August.

A senior defense official earlier said the strike had probably killed about 20 pro-government Sunni tribal fighters.

"This most likely was from a coalition air strike. Right now, we are still getting information," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the incident.

The official added the strike likely was "what we unfortunately call a blue-on-green incident" -- a case of mistaken identity where a coalition force inadvertently struck partners on the ground.

Sheikh Nazhan Sakhr al-Lihaybi, the commander of the fighters who were killed, said they had succeeded in repelling an attack by ISIS jihadists in the area, and were bombed when they gathered after the fighting ended.

Agriculture Minister Falah Hassan Zaidan, whose tribe resides in the Qayyarah area, also said that 21 tribal fighters were killed and confirmed the timing of the strike.

Lihaybi said the air raid also wounded five fighters, while Zaidan put the number at four.

The US-led coalition has been carrying out strikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria since 2014.

Last month the Pentagon admitted the coalition may have struck Syrian military positions inside the country, after Russia accused it of killing at least 62 Syrian troops.

That strike, which came during a doomed truce, saw coalition aircraft allegedly hit a Syrian military position near the Deir Ezzor airport in the country's east.

Wednesday's strike in Iraq comes as local forces prepare for a final push to retake Mosul, the last ISIS-held city in the country.

The Mosul operation -- which Western officials have indicated could start this month -- will involve a heterogeneous coalition of sometimes rival Iraqi forces including soldiers, police, Kurdish peshmerga fighters, and both Sunni and Shiite militiamen.

After it is launched, these forces will have to fight their way through ISIS-held territory -- sometimes over distances of dozens of kilometers (miles) -- before surrounding the city and then launching an assault to retake it.

The issue of which forces will actually enter the city is a contentious one, and there has been no public announcement of the roles the various forces will play.

Canadian Brigadier General David Anderson, who was speaking on behalf of the coalition from Baghdad, told reporters it would take an estimated 30,000 to 45,000 forces to hold Mosul following its "inevitable liberation."

"Plans are being finalized for the Mosul liberation while shaping operations, positioning of forces, logistics and ammunition and the relentless employment of coalition strikes all set the stage for success in Mosul," Anderson said in a videocall.