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Report finds disparities in civilian deaths from U.S.-led ISIS bombing campaign

U.S. bombing played a major role in driving the Islamic State group from cities in Iraq and Syria. But a report by The New York Times finds that thousands more civilians were killed in those bombing runs than originally admitted by the Pentagon. Hari Sreenivasan learns more from investigative reporter Azmat Khan.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The Islamic State group has largely been driven from the cities in Iraq and Syria that it controlled with fear and terror.

    A U.S. bombing campaign played a major role in the fight. But according to a report in The New York Times, thousands more civilians were killed in those bombing runs than the Pentagon initially admitted.

    I spoke earlier with one of the authors from that report, Azmat Khan, about how she and her colleagues conducted the investigation.

  • Azmat Khan:

    Well, we wanted to see how the coalition, the U.S.-led coalition, air campaign was playing out on the ground.

    And so we did a systematic sample in three different traditionally ISIS-held areas near Mosul. And we looked at every single airstrike in each of these areas. They were downtown Qaiyara, Shura, and the Aden district of East Mosul.

    And what we found or what we were trying to figure out was which number of airstrikes of the total number of airstrikes in those areas had resulted in civilian deaths or casualties, and then from that to determine which one of those were coalition airstrikes, so that we could get a reliable sense of how effectively this campaign was going, because, when you look at the coalition's own statements about this, they boast that this is the most precise air campaign in the history of warfare.

    And I really wanted to know if that was the case.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And what did you find?

  • Azmat Khan:

    We found that precision might not matter if the intelligence is wrong.

    And of the 103 airstrikes we looked at, there were 20 civilian casualty incidents of airstrikes, and in about half of those, there appeared to be no discernible target nearby, no ISIS target, suggesting either poor or faulty intelligence.

    So, if you don't have the right target in mind and you're conflating civilians with combatants, your precision may not matter, because if you're hitting a house the way you want in that exact way, it doesn't matter, if the target itself is an incorrect target.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Now, went back to Central Command with your findings, showed them the kind of reporting that you had done, and compared them to, what, their own YouTube videos?

  • Azmat Khan:

    Yes, their own YouTube videos, their own previous statements, their own public admissions or what they have acknowledged as civilian casualty incidents.

    So, I went to the Combined Air Operations Center in Udeid, which is where all of these aircraft, where U.S. Central Command is for the region and where these aircraft take off to bomb in Iraq and Syria.

    And, you know, I interviewed many commanders. I interviewed civilian casualty assessment experts. I spoke with legal advisers there. And then, ultimately, we provided them with the coordinates and date ranges of all 103 airstrikes and asked them if these were coalition airstrikes.

    Ultimately, they denied several of them as unlikely, for which I was able to find their own videos that they'd uploaded of military Web sites of a coalition airstrike taking place in areas where they said, no, that wasn't us, the nearest airstrike we carried out was 600 meters away or the like.

    So, we were able to check them on how reliable their logs are, and thus whether or not you can question their investigative methods when they receive allegations of civilian casualties. So, are they even able to identify when a strike is their own? Because the Iraqi air force is also carrying out airstrikes in Iraq.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    OK, speaking of allegations, you actually humanize the whole story by following one individual who lost four members of his family to an airstrike, a civilian.

    And he attempts to clear his name and possibly get reparations. How is that process?

  • Azmat Khan:

    So, Basim Razzo was a unique situation.

    He's a unique man. He lived in the United States for several years in the '80s. He went to Western Michigan University. He is fluent in English. And he's somebody who was also more well-off than many of the civilian survivors that I have met. So, this is a man who was able to meticulously documented what happened to him.

    He was able to prepare a report, who had relatives, including a professor at Yale, who was advocating on his behalf, who was able to arrange a meeting at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad to report his case and bring a document file with him.

    And even with all of those reporting mechanisms, it didn't result in his family and those four civilian deaths being acknowledged by the coalition. In fact, it took a follow-up from us in November of last year that prompted a process to realize that they had misplaced any original allegation that the coalition may have been looking at.

    And, ultimately, in March of this year, they offered him a payment of $15,000. It's a condolence payment, not meant to compensate him entirely for his home or the loss of life, but as a gesture of sympathy and gratitude.

    And, in this case, you have him turn down that offer, but this is the best-case scenario. Right? So if it took him a year-and-a-half to get to that offer and that acknowledgement, and still not feel like he's gotten a good answer, what chance do those Iraqi civilian survivors who don't speak English, who don't have those connections or networks, or who haven't met a Western journalist who is taking up their case as a point of inquiry, as a point of journalistic inquiry?

    What kind of chance do they have of this?

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right, the report is called "The Uncounted" at The New York Times.

    Azmat Khan, thanks so much for joining us.

  • Azmat Khan:

    Thank you for having me.

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