New administration, same problem: U.S.-backed forces keep killing civilians

A man is helped after identifying the body of a relative who died in a house that was destroyed during fights between Iraq security forces and the Islamic State on the western side of Mosul, Iraq, March 24, 2017. (Credit: AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

The U.S. admitted over the weekend that the military coalition it leads in Iraq was responsible for recent airstrikes in Mosul that killed more than 100 civilians. It was the latest attack in the region backed by the U.S. that killed innocent people. With many changes happening at the White House since the inauguration of Donald Trump, at least one thing stayed the same – U.S.-backed forces are killing civilians.

“Nothing in this conflict is more important than protecting civilians,” Lise Grande, the U.N.’s humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, said in a statement following the attack. “International humanitarian law is clear. Parties to the conflict – all parties – are obliged to do everything possible to protect civilians. This means that combatants cannot use people as human shields and cannot imperil lives through indiscriminate use of fire-power.”

Coalition strikes in Syria and Iraq killed an estimated 1,000 civilians, according to the independent monitoring group Airwars. The site says that the number of civilian casualties increased at the end of Obama’s term and are “accelerating further under the presidency of Donald Trump.”

In another recent attack, the U.S.-led coalition in Syria launched an airstrike against the Islamic State in the Raqqa province of Syria. Multiple sources say that at least 30 civilians were killed as a result, according to the New York Times. A week earlier, at least 49 people died when U.S. warplanes attacked a target in a village in western Aleppo Province, the Times reported.

And then there are the people killed by the U.S.-backed coalition involved in Yemen’s civil war. Human rights groups criticized the Saudi-led coalition for indiscriminately bombing residential areas, including hospitals and schools. It’s estimated that more than 4,600 civilians have died and 8,000 injured since the coalition began airstrikes in March 2015.

“Despite the growing mountain of evidence of coalition abuses, the U.S., U.K. and France seem more focused on selling arms to the Saudis than on their possible complicity in coalition war crimes,” Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “After two years of unlawful attacks on civilians and civilian structures, Saudi Arabia’s allies should reconsider their support and use their leverage with Riyadh to end the violations.”

Amnesty International officials said the Saudi-led coalition used cluster bombs made by Brazil when it attacked three residential districts in northern Yemen. The group is one of many advocating for a ban on cluster munitions, arguing that they are “inherently indiscriminate” often leading to strikes on unintended targets. The series of bomblets do not all detonate, making it dangerous for civilians long after a strike takes place.

The U.S. is involved in a series of conflicts in the region. Its coalition in Syria and Iraq is tasked with defeating the Islamic State. The Iraqi army is fighting the Islamist terrorist group in Mosul in order to recapture the city. Coalition forces provide air support and intelligence to assist Iraqi forces. In Yemen, the Saudi-led coalition backs the government embattled in a civil war against Houthi rebels who are supported by Iran. The U.S. provides weapons, intelligence and refueling to the coalition in its fight.

A bipartisan group of U.S. senators vocally opposed the strikes in Yemen.

“If the U.S. is serious when it says our support for Saudi Arabia isn’t a blank check, then it’s time to prove it – because it’s clear the Saudi-led coalition isn’t listening,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., in an October statement after the coalition bombed a funeral party in Yemen. “The administration should pull U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen because it’s harming America’s national security, enabling terrorist groups to thrive, and killing innocent civilians.”

They failed to halt the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia in September but were successful in December when the Obama administration announced the cancellation of a $300 million arms deal. Then-White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest cited concerns about civilian casualties as the reason for the change.

Aid groups and other activists actively continue to campaign in Washington against the strikes. The recent civilian casualties show that despite a change of administration, it is business as usual when it comes to the lack of accountability for attacks on civilians.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.