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US military investigates whether its Mosul airstrike killed dozens of civilians

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A boy stands outside the home where neighbors have reported that Islamic State was operating out of, across a home that was destroyed in a reported coalition air strikes in the Mosul al-Jadida neighborhood of Mosul, Nineveh Province, on March 24, 2017.(Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

MOSUL, Iraq — The U.S. military is investigating whether it was responsible for a bombing raid in the Iraqi city of Mosul that killed scores of civilians, making it the most deadly among Iraqi residents since the battle against the militant group Islamic State began more than two years ago.

Col. Joseph Scrocca, a U.S. spokesman based in Baghdad, said officials are examining multiple allegations placing a strike in the area sometime between March 17 and 23.

U.S. officials, who weren’t authorized to speak publicly about the ongoing investigation, said initial indications are that a fuel truck may have been inadvertently hit, causing a massive explosion.

It is among the latest incidents in which dozens of civilians are said to have been killed at the hands of U.S. forces. On Wednesday, humanitarian groups said at least 30 civilians were killed when an airstrike hit a school in Syria, south of Raqqa. Less than a week earlier, the U.S. was accused of bombing a mosque in Aleppo province, killing more than 40.

The Iraqi government also is looking into the explosion in Mosul, said Brig. Gen. Tahsin Ibrahim, spokesman for the ministry of defense. “If we hit civilians, there is a big investigation,” and if the investigation finds sufficient evidence, the case may be referred to a military court, he said.

Civil defense workers and witnesses at the scene of the Mosul strike said the bombing came in response to militants who had fired on aircraft in the area.

Several witnesses described being forced into their homes by militants who burned their cars, parked a suicide truck packed with explosives nearby and perched on roofs.

At the scene Friday, where authorities still were trying to recover corpses from the rubble a week after the bombing, the mood was grim: Bodies were pinned under houses, blackened hands and feet protruding from the rubble.

Muntaha Hijazam watched Iraqi Civil Defense workers in red suits scurry among the ruins of neighbors’ homes, extracting the dead and zipping them into blue body bags. She lost her two sons in the attack, Firas, 7 and Taiba, 4.

Hijazam, 52, walked down the dirt street where every other house appeared damaged, her black abaya gown trailing in the mud, and pointed to the ruins of her home. She was next door when it was destroyed, and was still searching for her sons’ remains.

“We recovered half his body,” she said of the 4-year-old. “The rest is still there.”

Pentagon officials said both recent incidents are under investigation.

“Our goal has always been for zero civilian casualties, but the coalition will not abandon our commitment to our partners because of ISIS’ brutal tactics terrorizing civilians, using human shields, and fighting from protected sites such as schools, hospitals and religious sites,” Scrocca said in a statement, using an acronym for Islamic State.

As the battle has moved into a city of narrow pathways and clusters of shops, homes and Muslim shrines, the U.S. military has launched an unprecedented number of airstrikes to help Iraqi forces advance. U.S. pilots describe dozens of strike aircraft circling high above west Mosul, waiting their turn to drop a bomb.

The U.S.-led coalition has unleashed more than 500 aerial bombs, artillery and mortar shells, ground-launched rockets and drone-launched missiles this week, which follows 880 the week prior. More than 18,400 munitions have rained down on Mosul since the offensive began Oct. 17, according to the Pentagon.

Delivering those strikes without laying waste to the ancient city and the civilians who live there has proved difficult as the militants mix among communities and take up fighting positions inside mosques, schools and hospitals.

The military is investigating more than a dozen reports of civilian casualties in Mosul alone.

Civilian deaths have long poisoned Iraqis’ relationship with the United States. To mitigate against the deaths, U.S. military officers and air controllers embed with the Iraqis to direct airstrikes against Islamic State positions and advise Iraqi ground commanders on how best to advance on the battlefield.

Lt. Gen. Jeffrey L. Harrigian, the top Air Force commander in the Middle East, said in February that U.S. advisers had been granted greater authority and, rather than going through headquarters, now can speak directly to pilots so that strikes can be launched quickly.

The U.S. military employs a lengthy set of precautions, including written rules of engagement and multiple levels of approval before bombs can be dropped or missiles launched. Still, the nature of the war in a dense, heavily populated environment guarantees more accidental deaths, especially when people make split-second life-or-death decisions.

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