New rules in place for risking civilian casualties in Iraq

Several months ago, nearly all U.S. airstrikes on Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria that potentially put civilians at risk required a formal approval from the four-star commander at U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Florida. 

But that’s begun to change as the Pentagon is pushing more authority for approving airstrikes down to lower levels, giving the commanders on the ground the power to OK some of the most high-risk-but-high-reward strikes on the extremist militants, defense officials say. 

Military officials talked publicly about the shift for the first time Wednesday, saying it’s an effort to speed up the bureaucratic process for approving strikes. The disclosure followed a report about the change published Tuesday by USA Today. 

“This does not translate to more civilian casualties,” Army Col. Steve Warren, a Defense Department spokesman in Baghdad, said. “This translates to a more rapid execution of strikes because we don’t have to send requests all the way to Tampa anymore. We can do it here. … The more authorities that are delegated down, the more rapidly we are able to respond,” Warren said. 

A rapid response is essential for many "dynamic" targets that may be available for only short windows of time, for example, a high-ranking militant driving along an open road. In some cases, the final decision rests with Army Lt. Gen. Sean Macfarland, the commander of Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve, as the fight against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is known. 

In other cases it may be lower-ranking officers. “It’s levels. It’s how many civilians we believe are potentially at risk,” Warren said. For the most complex and potentially deadly strikes, approval from the CENTCOM headquarters may still be required, Warren said. 

Questions about risking civilian casualties are likely to intensify as the Iraqi army moves toward the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul, a densely populated city where it will be extremely difficult to provide Iraqi ground forces with aggressive close-air support without some risk of hitting non-combatants. 

Delegating authority down the chain of command has been occurring gradually over the past six months, Warren said. “As our higher headquarters starts seeing the same type of target-set come up, over time they will say ‘OK, in this case were going to delegate the authority. You don’t need to show us that anymore.' 

For example on ... oil trucks. If we hit a certain target type repeatedly over time, higher headquarters may delegate down that type,” Warren said. The Defense Department publicly acknowledges killing at least 26 civilians in the air campaign that began almost two years ago and has dropped more than 40,000 bombs. Outside experts say the real toll is likely far higher. 

by Andrew Tilghman
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