Pentagon chief Ashton Carter has put his hands up and admitted that the deadly US airstrike last Friday killing nine Iraqi soldiers was “a mistake”. Carter said it was a case of “friendly fire” committed in the fog of war.
Trouble for Washington is that many Iraqis, including military ground personnel, do not buy the “friendly fire” explanation. Rather, Iraqis will see the latest American “mistake” not as an accidental error, but as further evidence that the US military is in reality working covertly in Iraq to support the terror group known as Islamic State (also known as Daesh, ISIS or ISIL).
The latest incident occurred near the city of Fallujah, some 50 kilometers west of the capital, Baghdad. Iraqi troops were making advances against the IS stronghold when their commanders called in US air support. Several missiles were subsequently fired from American fighter jets, but it was Iraqi soldiers who took the hit.
Iraqi military spokesmen appear to back up the US account of the incident as being a result of mistaken friendly fire. They said that miscommunication with US “coalition partners” led to a miscalculation on the movement of Iraqi troops in the heat of battle.
“The coalition air forces were covering the advance of army ground troops near Fallujah because the Iraqi army helicopters were not able to fly due to the bad weather. The final death toll of the strike is nine soldiers killed, including an army officer,” said Iraq’s defense minister Khaled al-Obeidi.
Nevertheless, one Iraqi member of parliament (MP), Hakim al-Zamili voiced the suspicions of many when he told RT: “We don’t believe it was a technical mistake. We constantly see that the United States are trying to provide air cover to Islamic State. They are preventing us from making an offensive,” he said.
The Iraqi MP added: “I think everyone is now convinced that the United States is not sincere in its fight against Islamic State. Maybe they have another agenda. The Pentagon, the CIA and other agencies in the US are trying to make a [rift] between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq,” he added. “They are trying to tear [apart] Iraq with the help of their allies like Turkey and the Gulf states.”
Earlier this month, the Washington Post reported on rife suspicions among Iraqi public, politicians and military that US forces were “in cahoots” with the IS terror group. The belief in a Machiavellian agenda held by the Americans was, as the paper noted, harming the supposed US “anti-terror” effort and standing in the region.
Since August 2014, the US began air operations in Iraq in conjunction with the government in Baghdad with the stated objective of “degrading and defeating” the IS, in the words of President Barack Obama. The US has also been carrying out airstrikes in Syria – although those operations are not approved by the authorities in Damascus.
Last week, Obama claimed that the US was “hitting IS harder than ever” and that it was stepping up its air campaign to “hunt down” terror operatives and commanders. Obama said that the US has carried out over 9,000 strikes in the past 16 months, with the number of strikes roughly split evenly between Iraq and Syria.
Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad has explicitly expressed skepticism about the so-called “anti-terror” objective of the US air campaign. The Russian government has also questioned the American commitment to its stated goals.
Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has not made public comments of an ulterior, sinister American agenda and still refers to the US as a coalition partner in the fight against terrorism.
However, that’s not how many ordinary Iraqis see it. As the Washington Post reported: “The perception among Iraqis that the United States is somehow in cahoots with the militants it claims to be fighting appears… to be widespread across the country’s Sunni-Shiite sectarian divide, and it speaks to more than just the troubling legacy of mistrust that has clouded the United States’ relationship with Iraq since the 2003 invasion and the subsequent withdrawal eight years later.”
The Post article cited several Iraqis who say they have seen videos purporting to show US forces air-dropping weapons and other supplies to IS brigades. Iraqi soldiers complained that US air “support” has been more a hindrance than a help in the battle against the terrorists. One Iraqi elite force member, Lieutenant Murtada Fadl, even told the Washington Post: “We’d be better off without them [the Americans]. The paper added: “He said that the only air support had come from the Iraqi air force and that he wishes the government would ask the Russians to replace the Americans.”
A recurring complaint among Iraqis is that US air power has done so little to destroy IS bases and oil smuggling operations. The figure of 9,200 US airstrikes cited by Obama last week compares with over 4,200 strikes carried out by Russian forces across Syria in only three months. The evidence suggests that Russia’s military operations have inflicted far greater damage to IS and other jihadist brigades compared with the American operations.
A New York Times article this weekend said that the Obama administration is in “a dilemma” about the “risks of civilian casualties” if it were to step up the aerial campaign in Iraq and Syria against IS.
The NY Times noted that Washington military planners are aware of precise IS positions in the eastern Syrian stronghold city of Raqqa, but are loathe to order in airstrikes on those targets out of concern to avoid “collateral damage”.
Such official care by the US military for civilian victims has a serious credibility problem in light of the bombing and strafing of a hospital in Kunduz, northern Afghanistan. In that strike on October 3, some 30 hospital staff and patients were killed when an AC-130 gunship opened up on the facility in a sustained attack that lasted for nearly an hour.
Doctors Without Borders, the medical group who ran the Kunduz hospital, has described it as a “war crime”. US officials said it was “a mistake” – another case of “friendly fire”. But other reports point to a deliberate decision by the US military to wipe out the facility because they believed it contained a wounded insurgent belonging to the Taliban. In other words, there was a complete disregard for civilian casualties in order to take out a single target.
So the idea that US military strikes against IS terror bases in Syria or Iraq have been curtailed out of an ethical duty for safety of civilians does not seem plausible.
In another incident, this time in Syria, it was reported earlier this month by McClatchy News that 36 civilians, including 20 children, were killed in a US airstrike on the village of Al Khan in Hasakah Province. That attack was allegedly carried out to hit an IS brigade in the vicinity.
That’s why the latest deaths of Iraqi soldiers in Fallujah caused by American forces will fuel suspicions that the US is not serious about hitting IS. Hitting Iraqi troops advancing on IS positions seems more consistent with claims that the Pentagon is far more concerned about preserving its covert “regime change” assets – in the Islamic State.