Pentagon Chief Expected to Discuss 2019 Airstrike That Killed Dozens

Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III is expected on Wednesday to make his first public comments about a 2019 US air strike in Syria that killed dozens of women and children, Pentagon officials said.

Mr. Austin, who became secretary earlier this year after the Biden administration began, received a briefing Tuesday on the strike and how the Army handled it from Gen. Kenneth F. Mackenzie Jr., the commander of the Army’s Central Command, which has overseen 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 an investigative report published by the New York Times over the weekend detailing the raid and allegations that senior officers and civilian officials sought to conceal the losses.

A Pentagon spokesman, John F. A religious state sprawling across Iraq and Syria. It was one of the largest incidents of civilian casualties in the years-long war against ISIS, but it has not 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 shadowy and secret special operations unit called Task Force 9, as well as into the handling of the task force’s investigation into the strike by the military’s top headquarters and the Defense Department’s inspector. General. He can also certify the findings of the task force and General McKenzie’s review of the incident.

The task force subsequently investigated the raid and acknowledged the deaths of four civilians, but also concluded that the unit had no wrongdoing. In October 2019, the task force sent its findings to military headquarters in Baghdad, as well as to Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Florida.

But command in Baghdad failed to review and close the investigation, did not follow through on Central Command and reminded Baghdad Command to do so, Capt. Bill Urban, a spokesman for Central Command, said Wednesday before Mr. Austin’s briefing.

As a result, top military officials in Iraq or Florida never reviewed the incident, and the investigation technically remained an open issue until the Times investigation.

“Should we proceed? Yes,” Captain Urban said in a telephone interview, blaming the accident on “management oversight.”

The New York Times investigation showed that the death toll from the raid, which killed an estimated 80 people, came out almost immediately to military officials. A legal officer described the bombing as a possible war crime that required an investigation. But at almost every step, the military took steps that concealed the disastrous blow. The Defense Department’s independent inspector general has launched an investigation, but the report containing its findings has been frozen and stripped of any reference to the strike.

In an email to the Senate Armed Services Committee this spring, the legal officer who witnessed the strike warned that “senior US military officials deliberately and systematically circumvented the premeditated strike,” and that there was a good chance that “the highest levels of government remained unaware of what was happening.” On the ground “.

The Times investigation found that the bombing, carried out by F-15 attack aircraft, was called up by Task Force 9, made up largely of the US Army’s Delta Force. The task force was responsible for ground operations in Syria. Military sources who spoke to The Times said the covert task force circumvented oversight by claiming that the vast majority of its strikes required immediate action to protect allied forces from an imminent threat. Often, as army officers said, no threat was imminent.

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

Central Command told The Times that the strike involved three guided bombs: a 500-pound bomb that hit the first group and two 2,000-pound bombs that targeted people fleeing the first blast. This week, the command corrected itself, saying that the three bombs were 500-pound munitions.

The command said the three strikes killed 16 fighters and four civilians. As for the other 60 dead, the statement said it did not turn out to be civilians, in part because women and children in the Islamic State sometimes took up arms.

Human rights advocates this week expressed outrage at the strike and the military’s handling of it, and called on Congress to open an independent investigation.

“It’s clear that the US military is not going to fix it,” said Sarah Hollowinsky, director of Human Rights Watch in Washington and former human rights adviser to the Army’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, Sarah Hollowinsky. The Pentagon has never prioritized harming civilians. Start. I’m tired of this talking point.”

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