Pentagon chief set to discuss 2019 airstrike that killed dozens

WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III is expected to make his first public comments on Wednesday on a U.S. airstrike in Syr...


WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III is expected to make his first public comments on Wednesday on a U.S. airstrike in Syria in 2019 that killed dozens of women and children, Pentagon officials said.

Mr Austin, who became secretary earlier this year after the start of the Biden administration, received a briefing on the strike and the handling of it by the army on Tuesday from Chief General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. from the Army Central Command, which oversaw the air war in Syria. The Pentagon has scheduled a press conference at 2:30 p.m.

The defense secretary requested the briefing after reading a investigative report published this weekend by the New York Times detailing the strike and allegations that senior officers and civilian officials sought to cover up the victims.

Monday, John F. Kirby, the top Pentagon spokesman, declined to comment on details of the strike, a bomb attack in Baghuz, Syria on March 18, 2019, which was part of the final battle against Islamic State fighters in a remnant of a once sprawling religious state across Iraq and Syria. It was one of the largest incidents of civilian casualties in the multi-year war against ISIS, but had never been publicly acknowledged by the US military.

Several options are available to Mr. Austin. He could order a new investigation into the strike, which was carried out by a secret and classified special operations unit called Task Force 9, as well as the handling of the task force’s investigation into the strike by higher headquarters. of the army and the inspector of the Ministry of Defense. general. He could also endorse the task force’s findings and General McKenzie’s review of the incident.

The task force then investigated the strike and admitted that four civilians were killed, but also concluded that there had been no wrongdoing in the unit. In October 2019, the task force sent its findings to the military headquarters in Baghdad, as well as to the central command headquarters in Tampa, Florida.

But the Baghdad command did not review and close the investigation, and the central command did not follow up and remind the Baghdad command to do so, Central Command spokesman Captain Bill Urban said on Wednesday. , before Mr. Austin’s briefing.

As a result, senior military officials in Iraq or Florida never examined the incident, and the investigation technically remained open until the Times investigation.

“Should we have followed up? Yes, “said Captain Urban in a telephone interview, attributing the incident to” an administrative oversight “.

The Times investigation showed that the death toll from the strike, which killed around 80 people, was almost immediately apparent to military officials. A lawyer flagged the bombing as a possible war crime that needed investigation. But at almost every step, the military took action that masked the catastrophic strike. The independent Inspector General of the Defense Ministry opened an investigation, but the report containing his findings was blocked and stripped of any mention of the strike.

In an email this spring to the Senate Armed Services Committee, the lawyer who witnessed the strike warned that “senior US military officials have intentionally and systematically bypassed the process of the deliberate strike”, and that he There was a good chance that “the highest levels of government were unaware of what was going on on the ground.”

The Times investigation found that the bombardment by the Air Force’s F-15 attack jets was called in by Task Force 9, largely made up of the US Army’s elite Delta Force. The task force was in charge of ground operations in Syria. Military sources who spoke to The Times said the secret task force circumvented surveillance by saying the vast majority of its strikes required immediate action to protect Allied troops from an imminent threat. Often, military officers said, no imminent threat was present.

Last week, after The Times sent its findings to US Central Command, the command acknowledged the attack for the first time. In a statement, he said the 80 deaths were justified because the task force launched a self-defense strike against a group of fighters who posed an imminent threat to Allied forces on the ground.

Central Command told The Times that the strike included three guided bombs: one 500-pound bomb that hit the initial group and two 2,000-pound bombs that targeted people fleeing the initial explosion. This week, the command corrected itself, saying all three bombs were 500-pound ammunition.

The command said the three strikes killed 16 fighters and four civilians. As for the other 60 people killed, the statement said it was unclear whether they were civilians, in part because ISIS’s women and children sometimes took up arms.

Human rights activists this week expressed outrage at the strike and the way the military is handling it, and called for Congress to launch an independent investigation.

“Obviously, the US military is not going to fix it,” said Sarah Holewinski, director of Human Rights Watch in Washington and former senior human rights adviser to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. army. “The Pentagon has never prioritized civilian damage. Already. I’m sick of this talking point.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Pentagon chief set to discuss 2019 airstrike that killed dozens
Pentagon chief set to discuss 2019 airstrike that killed dozens
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