Pentagon Dramatically Lowballs Civilian Deaths in Bombings

The military says its nearly two years of bombings against Islamic State have killed 41 civilians, but a key monitor group puts the number far higher.

Photo Credit: Staff Sergeant Chelsea Browning/Public Domain

Nearly two years into its bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria, the U.S. military has revealed little to the public about who exactly is being killed, with what weapons and to what end. Central Command only acknowledged it had established a firebase near Makhmour in Iraq when it was forced to after a marine was killed by rocket fire last month.

Now, Central Command claims to be coming clean on civilian killings, announcing Friday that “nine separate U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, between Sept. 10, 2015 and Feb. 2, 2016, have likely resulted in the death of 20 civilians and injuries to an additional 11 civilians.” This latest number means that the Pentagon has so far acknowledged that just 41 civilians total have been killed and 28 wounded by its bombing campaign against ISIL.

Numerous media outlets dutifully parroted the Pentagon’s number, with Reuters and Washington Post articles reading like Central Command press releases. This uncritical reporting comes after the Obama administration admitted in 2014 that it had relaxed standards for avoiding civilian deaths.

If the total number of people the Pentagon acknowledges having killed seems low, that’s probably because it is.

According to the not-for-profit monitoring organization Airwars, headed by investigative journalist Chris Woods, the U.S.-led coalition has likely killed more than 1,000 civilians and wounded at least 858, with the nearly 42,000 bombs and missiles it has unleashed. The U.S. military is directly responsible for the vast majority of coalition bombings, indicating that most of these civilian killings are on the Pentagon's hands.

Airwars cross-checks a variety of sources to confirm such deaths, including local media reports and data from NGOs and the United Nations. In response to the latest Pentagon report, the organization noted, “Only a third of the incidents were publicly reported at the time, suggesting both that internal CENTCOM monitoring is capable of detecting likely civilian casualties—but also that public accounts of civilian deaths may represent a significant underreporting.”

This observation is striking given that the Pentagon repeatedly denies reports it is killing civilians. It is not clear what took the U.S. military up to seven months to report the deaths.

Airwars noted that two Iraqi families are likely among those the Pentagon acknowledged were killed. One of those attacks took place Dec. 12, 2015 in Ramadi, resulting in the deaths of Duraid Ibrahim Kazem, his wife Nebras Abdul Alkarim, and three of their children, Mustafa, Mohammed and Farah, according to the group.

The U.S. acknowledges killing at least one civilian in the Syrian city of Raqqah, where people have endured U.S., French, Russian and Syrian airstrikes, as well as the brutal reign of ISIL.

The Pentagon’s statement comes amid an escalation of the U.S. war, despite the fact that the president has not received authorization from Congress. President Obama announced over the weekend that he is deploying 250 more U.S. troops to Syria, following revelations last month that the U.S. is deploying an undetermined number of marines to Iraq.

Sarah Lazare is a staff writer for AlterNet. A former staff writer for Common Dreams, she coedited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahlazare.

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