With ISIS in Cross Hairs, U.S. Holds Back to Protect Civilians

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from The New York Times,

American intelligence analysts have identified seven buildings in downtown Raqqa in eastern Syria as the main headquarters of the Islamic State. But the buildings have gone untouched during the 10-month allied air campaign.

And just last week, convoys of heavily armed Islamic State fighters paraded triumphantly through the streets of the provincial capital Ramadi in western Iraq after forcing Iraqi troops to flee. They rolled on unscathed by coalition fighter-bombers.

American and allied warplanes are equipped with the most precise aerial arsenal ever fielded. But American officials say they are not striking significant — and obvious — Islamic State targets out of fear that the attacks will accidentally kill civilians. Killing such innocents could hand the militants a major propaganda coup and alienate both the local Sunni tribesmen, whose support is critical to ousting the militants, and Sunni Arab countries that are part of the American-led coalition.

But many Iraqi commanders, and even some American officers, argue that exercising such prudence is harming the coalition’s larger effort to destroy the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or Daesh, and that it illustrates the limitations of American air power in the Obama administration’s strategy. A persistent complaint of Iraqi officials and security officers is that the United States has been too cautious in its air campaign, frequently allowing columns of Islamic State fighters essentially free movement on the battlefield.

The international alliance is not providing enough support compared with ISIS’ capabilities on the ground in Anbar,” said Maj. Muhammed al-Dulaimi, an Iraqi officer in Anbar Province, which contains Ramadi. “The U.S. airstrikes in Anbar didn’t enable our security forces to resist and confront the ISIS attacks,” he added. “We lost large territories in Anbar because of the inefficiency of the U.S.-led coalition airstrikes.”

Much of the American caution comes from past experience. Civilian deaths from American airstrikes during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were sometimes unacknowledged or understated by the military and caused a great deal of anger, which is one reason for the United States’ current skittishness and what commanders say is their overriding goal to prevent those deaths now.

Underscoring that goal, the military’s Central Command on Thursday announced the results of an inquiry into the deaths of two children in Syria in November, saying they were most likely killed by an American airstrike. It was the first time the Pentagon had acknowledged civilian casualties since it began the air campaign. A handful of other attacks are under investigation.

Human rights advocates say that it remains unclear how many civilian lives the restrictions have saved.

“The U.S. has indeed put in place rigorous policies and procedures to minimize civilian harm, but with no combat troops on the ground it is hard to evaluate how successful these policies have been,” said Federico Borello, the executive director of the Center for Civilians in Conflict, an advocacy group.

Islamic State troops, however, appear to be taking advantage of the restrictions, as the militants increasingly fight from within civilian populations to deter attack.

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