The U.S. government has admitted to killing 20 civilians in Iraq and Syria in a five month span, a death toll far below that estimated by independent observers. Washington had previously acknowledged 26 civilian casualties.
In a statement released Friday, the U.S. Central Command insisted that the killing of the civilians, and the injuring of 11 others, was legal.
"In all of the cases released today, assessments determined that although the strikes complied with the law of armed conflict and all appropriate precautions were taken, civilian casualties unfortunately did occur," it said. The casualties occurred between Sept. 10, 2015, and Feb. 2, 2016, according to the U.S. military. A majority of the dead came from two families wiped out in the airstrikes.
The news comes a day after it was revealed that the U.S. has relaxed rules of engagement designed to reduce the risk of civilian casualties as part of its air war against the Islamic State group.
According to USA Today, the Pentagon last fall began allowing lower-level commanders to call in airstrikes that threaten to kill innocents and attacks that entail "the probability of 10 civilian casualties are permitted," the paper reported.
A U.S.-led coalition began conducting airstrikes against the extremist group in August 2014, a war that has entailed nearly 41,700 missiles being fired and bombs dropped on Iraq and Syria. This month the U.S. also began flying B-52 bombers in Iraq, the first time they have been deployed in the Middle East since the first Gulf War.
Airwars.org, an independent monitoring organization, estimates that the 20-month air campaign has likely killed more than 1,100 civilians.
"The gulf between likely civilian deaths from airstrikes and those admitted by belligerents in Iraq and Syria grows ever wider," Chris Woods, director of Airwars.org, told teleSUR.
Overall, the U.S. has admitted to killing just 41 civilians; no other member of the coalition, which includes Britain, France and Saudi Arabia, has admitted to any civilian casualties.
The U.S. admission comes a month after it carried out airstrikes on Mosul University that appear to reflect its new, more lax rules of engagement. More than two dozen civilians allegedly died in that attack on what the U.S. deemed an Islamic State "headquarters" in the Iraqi city. Deliberately targeting a civilian institution—the university remains open for classes—may constitute a war crime.
The U.S. is not the only foreign power allegedly killing scores of civilians in Iraq and Syria. Russia, which in September 2015 began carrying out airstrikes in Syria, has likely killed more than 1,400 civilians during the first three months of that campaign, according to Airwars.