WASHINGTON — The Pentagon has released weeks-old video purporting to show Islamic State militants in Mosul herding innocent Iraqis into a building before baiting coalition forces to attack, marking the latest in a series of efforts to fault the terror group — rather than errant American airstrikes — for an alarming rise in civilian casualties.
U.S. military officials call the new tactic “more sinister” than the Islamic State’s well-documented use of human shields, and have pushed back aggressively against suggestions this upward trend in civilian deaths may be the result of a policy shift that empowers less-experienced commanders to authorize precision airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. That change was made in December, a point the Pentagon repeatedly emphasizes in seeking to dispel suggestions that President Trump, who has pledged to bring greater force to bear on ISIS, appears more willing than his predecessor to put civilians at risk.
The video was released Friday, nearly a month after U.S. officials first referenced its existence while attempting to explain a mass-casualty event March 17 in Mosul — the suspected result of a coalition airstrike. It’s one of at least three recent examples, officials have said, in which ISIS sought to bait coalition attacks with the goal of killing innocent people and capitalizing on the ensuing public outcry.
That incident is believed to have killed nearly 200 and remains under investigation by the U.S. military, which has said it hopes to glean a better understanding of the Islamic State’s shifting tactics. “Every time the enemy makes a move, we make a counter move,” Col. Joe Scrocca, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, said last month.
But the Pentagon also is on the defensive, with
multiple investigations underway into reported civilian casualties. U.S. officials are facing greater pressure to more aggressively promote their counter-narrative as ISIS and other terror groups, which are skilled at leveraging propaganda and social media, seek to undermine the American-led coalition by portraying it as reckless.
After the March 17 incident, at least seven senior Defense Department officials publicly addressed the allegations U.S. forces may be to blame. Those efforts included nuanced discussions with the Pentagon press corps. Among them was a background conversation focused on the procedures used for calling in airstrikes, by American and Iraqi air controllers alike, and relevant law-of-war parameters considered during the approval process. Officials say authorities were adjusted in December to help “eliminate unnecessary delay.”
The footage released Friday is intended to support the theory that ISIS has shifted tactics in Mosul, though U.S. officials acknowledge they can’t be certain the people shown in the video are indeed ISIS hostages or what the militants’ intentions were. “While the video cannot portray intent,” officials said in a news release accompanying its release, “it does show actions, including knowingly establishing firing positions while civilians were present.”
Their fate is unknown.
Shawn Snow edits is a Military Times staff writer and editor of the Early Bird Brief.
. Andrew deGrandpre is Military Times’ senior editor and Pentagon bureau chief.
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