WASHINGTON — A US Air Force investigation has concluded that four civilians, potentially including a child, were likely killed in a March 13, 2015, airstrike near al-Hatra, Iraq.
"The preponderance of the evidence gathered during the investigation indicates that the airstrikes likely resulted in the deaths of four non-combatants," the summary of the investigation reads. "According to the report, one of the non-combatants may have been a child."
However, "no positive identification can be made with reasonable certainty" as to the gender or age of the victims without evidence that "is not available to the Coalition."
The strike was carried out by a US Air Force A-10 Warthog, according to US Central Command spokesman Col. Pat Ryder. The investigation began April 20, with findings approved on June 28.
The target of the airstrike was a checkpoint run by forces of the Islamic State militant group, commonly known as ISIL or ISIS. The ordnance "properly and accurately" struck the intended target, but also hit two vehicles parked at the checkpoint.
Those two vehicles apparently contained the four non-combatants, who exited the vehicles after the weapons were released but right before the strikes hit. According to the Pentagon readout, the individuals were not seen during prestrike surveillance, and the aircrew "had no opportunity to detect the presence of the likely civilians in the target area."
According to Ryder, there are currently 26 ongoing investigations into civilian casualties. Over the course of the anti-ISIS operations, two other civilians have been confirmed killed.
In a statement released with the investigation, Lt. Gen. Charles Brown, Jr., commander of US Air Forces Central Command, said in a statement that the service regrets "the unintentional loss of lives and keeps those families affected in our thoughts."
Speaking to reporters Nov. 7 in Dubai, Brown elaborated on why the service has gone out of its way to avoid civilian casualties.
"Part of our coalition's [goal] is to minimize civilian casualties," Brown said. "Part of this is getting the population to decide who is on their side, the insurgency or the coalition. And if we just start wiping out civilians, there is potential there that they go differently."
Ryder used the announcement to draw a comparison between how the US-led coalition is fighting in Syria versus the Russian forces. The Pentagon has accused Russia of using "dumb" bombs, which increase the chances for civilian casualties.
"In our minds there is no doubt there is a high potential for civilian casualties with these kinds of strikes," Ryder said. "So we would again ask our Russian partners to exercise the care the coalition is taking, in terms of trying to minimize civilian casualties, keeping in mind that the reason the coalition is fighting ISIL is to protect and defend the civilian population that has been so brutalized by ISIL. Creating civilian casualties does nothing but help enable ISIL and other jihadists."
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.