(CNSNews.com) - “The death of innocent civilians in war is a terrible tragedy that weighs heavily on all of us,” Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, commander of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, told a news conference on Tuesday.
“But I know this -- I'm not targeting civilians. ISIS is. And so we will do the best job we absolutely can to prevent this unnecessary loss of life. The best way, though, to put an end to this human suffering is to win in Mosul and win in Raqqa and do it fast.”
Townsend said the coalition is investigating a March 17 explosion that leveled a building in western Mosul and killed an undetermined number of civilians.
“Right now there are a lot of conflicting reports as to what brought down the building or buildings that caused civilian casualties,” Townsend said. “What we know for sure is that we did conduct a strike in that area. What we don't know for certain is that that strike is responsible for the casualties in question.
“There are also reports that ISIS may have trapped civilians in the house and rigged it to blow up. There's a report a secondary VBIED explosion may have been the cause that destroyed the house. Also, I would point out these aren't necessarily mutually exclusive, it could have been a combination of these events that caused this tragedy and that's why we're hesitant to say anything definitive until our proper process is completed.”
Townsend said the munition used in the airstrike “should not have collapsed an entire building.”
(Townsend was speaking to reporters by telephone because his base in Iraq was conducting a defense drill, and that's why there is no video of the "undercover" and "locked down" Townsend.)
Townsend described the fighting in urban western Mosul as “tough and brutal” and the “most significant urban combat to take place since World War II.”
“I'll say this, if we did it -- and I'd say there's at least a fair chance that we did – it was an unintentional accident of war, and we will transparently report it to you when we're ready. The coalition freely and transparently takes on the responsibility to act in accordance with the law of armed conflict, in all of our operations.
"We set the highest standards for protecting civilians," Townsend continued. "It is my view that our dedication, diligence and discipline in prosecuting our combat operations while protecting civilians is without precedent in recorded history of warfare. None of this changes the basic facts though. Civilians are dying in Mosul. Most of them are dying at the hands of ISIS and that's the real horror, the real tragedy of Mosul."
A reporter asked Townsend if the rules of engagement for airstrikes or “the tolerance for civilian casualties’ has changed under President Trump.
Townsend said he would not go into detail on the rules of engagement (ROE) because “they’re classified.”
“But I will say this. There have been some relatively minor adjustments to the ROE since I have been in command, since last August. All of those changes were fairly low level, approved at the CENTCOM level; did not have to go to the secretary of defense or the administration.
“And quite truthfully, they don't apply. They're not the cause of what we're seeing right now. So there were changes to the ROE, but they're not really related to what we're seeing right now.”
Townsend said what has not changed is “our care, our caution, our applications of the rules of force, how and when we apply our combat power, our tolerance for human -- civilian casualties. None of that has changed.”
Townsend said an increase in civilian casualties is “fairly predictable,” given the urban landscape and the enemies’ advantage in having two and a half years to dig in.
He said that’s why the coalition liberated the east side of Mosul first: “The east side did not have neighborhoods that were more inclined to possibly side with or support ISIS's agenda. The east side was more open and more modern construction. So, that's why we saw less civilian casualties on the east side. And as we transition to the west side, we have said all along the west side was going to be a much harder fight.”
Townsend said the fight for western Mosul is the “toughest and most brutal phase of this war and probably the toughest -- it is the toughest and most brutal close quarters combat that I have experienced in my 34 years of service -- or I have observed or read about through my 34 years of service.
“So I think that's really the explanation for the civilian casualties. The civilians are there. Some of them have been able to escape. Those that have not been able to escape are held against their will. They just aren't able to get out or they're just afraid to try to leave. As I said earlier, we're seeing double the amount of refugees coming out that we saw on the east side.
“But still, that still leaves a lot of people and it's just unfortunate that they're just stuck in the crossfire.”