Sinan Salaheddin
and Robert Burns

BAGHDAD: U.S. airstrikes probably played a role in the deaths of dozens of civilians in Mosul earlier this month, U.S. and Iraqi military officials acknowledged Tuesday, but they denied the rules for avoiding civilian casualties have been loosened despite a recent spike in civilian casualties.

Speaking from Baghdad to reporters at the Pentagon, the top commander of U.S. forces in Iraq said an ongoing investigation may reveal a more complicated explanation for the March 17 explosion that residents say killed at least 100 people, including the possibility that Islamic State militants rigged the building with explosives after forcing civilians inside.

Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend said a recent spate of civilian casualties in Mosul was “fairly predictable” given the densely populated urban neighborhoods that the IS fighters are defending against Iraqi government troops. But the civilian deaths cannot be attributed to any loosening of American military rules of combat, he said, and Washington hasn’t decided to tolerate greater risk of civilian casualties in U.S. airstrikes.

Amnesty International on Tuesday said the rising death toll suggested the U.S.-led coalition wasn’t taking adequate precautions as it helps Iraqi forces try to retake the city.

Townsend acknowledged the U.S. conducted multiple airstrikes in the area of the explosions. That, coupled with initial inquiries done by U.S. technical experts who visited the scene, led him to say: “My initial assessment is that we probably had a role in these casualties.”

But Townsend said the type of munitions used by the U.S. in the airstrikes should not have been able to bring down the entire building, raising questions about the level of American involvement. He said U.S. officials were assessing the possibility that IS forced civilians to gather there to act as human shields or to lure the U.S. into attacking.

“It sure looks like they were,” Townsend said. Another possibility that was being examined was that the militants filled the building with explosives, he said.

In the most extensive U.S. explanation of what is known about the event, Townsend stressed that no one should think it was a deliberate U.S. act. “If we did it — and I’d say there is at least a fair chance we did — it was an unintentional accident of war,” he said.