Pentagon: US strike that killed Iraqi soldiers could be 'mistake' by both sides
"[Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi] and I agreed that this was an event that we both regretted and that there would be an investigation of it, but that these kinds of things happen when you're fighting side by side," US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said on Saturday.
The US said they are conducting an investigation into the incident, which was the first confirmed case of friendly fire since the US-led coalition started a bombing campaign against the terrorist group Islamic State in Iraq.
Earlier, Iraq's defense minister said nine servicemen were killed in the strike.
"The coalition air forces were covering the advance of army ground troops near Fallujah because the Iraqi army helicopters were not able to fly due to the bad weather. The final death toll of the strike is nine soldiers killed, including an army officer," Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi told a news conference.
The Iraqi military earlier reported one fatality in the incident, which happened some 65 kilometers west of Baghdad, and said nine others were injured. Soldiers involved in the incident told the media that as many as 25 troops could have been killed. Medical sources reported treating at least 20 injured in the wake of the airstrike.
Baghdad said the US mistake was likely due to Iraqi troops and their opponents having been close to each other at the time of the bombing.
“The distance between our forces and the enemy was very close, meters,” an Iraqi Defense Ministry statement said Friday. “Our forces got mixed.”
The assessment was questioned by an Iraqi officer, who was injured by the US airstrike.
“We were moving forward and Daesh were retreating, when suddenly the bombing took place on the forces that were behind us,” he said on condition of anonymity, using the Arabic abbreviation for Islamic State.
He added that the fact that senior officers got injured indicates that the airstrike didn't target the frontline.
The incident fuels suspicions in Iraq that the US-led coalition may be helping IS rather than fighting against it, a notion that is widespread in the country. Shiite militias, which are fighting against IS forces in Iraq, had suffered from American interventions that helped the terrorists in the past, militia commander Hakim al-Zamili told RT. Al-Zamili also heads the Iraqi parliament’s defense and security committee.
“We don't believe it was a technical mistake. We constantly see that the United States are trying to provide air cover to Islamic State. They are preventing us from making an offensive,” he said.
“I think everyone is now convinced that the United States is not sincere in its fight against Islamic State. Maybe they have another agenda. The Pentagon, the CIA and other agencies in the US are trying to make a [rift] between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq,” he added. “They are trying to tear [apart] Iraq with the help of their allies like Turkey and the Gulf states.”
The Shia militias are fighting against IS with the help of instructors and officers from Iran. The US refuses to coordinate its combat missions in Iraq with Tehran. Some members of the US-led coalition, such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, see Iran as an enemy and would oppose any cooperation with Tehran.
The attack on Iraqi troops is the second embarrassing incident for the US Air Force in recent months. In early October, American warplanes bombed a hospital run by the international aid organization Doctors Without Borders in Afghanistan city of Kunduz, killing at least 42 people. Amid widespread condemnation, Washington said the strike was a mistake and issued a presidential apology, a rare development for incident involving civilian casualties caused by US bombings.