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  • A man carries a young girl after a government airstrike on Douma, a suburb of Damascus.

    A man carries a young girl after a government airstrike on Douma, a suburb of Damascus. | Photo: Reuters

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The United States and Russia both refuse to concede their bombs are killing hundreds of innocent men, women and children in the Middle East.

​The U.S. government has admitted to killing at least 21 civilians as a result of the more than 7,500 airstrikes it has launched in Iraq and Syria since August 2014, according to a report published Thursday by The Daily Beast. Previously, the United States had admitted to killing just six civilians, a number far below that estimated by independent observers.

The U.S. first admitted that its air campaign had killed civilians in November 2015, more than a year after that campaign began.

The latest report of civilian dead comes just days after the United Nations revealed that, according to its count, at least 400 civilians had been killed by airstrikes in Iraq between January 2014 and October 2015. The U.N. did not name the party responsible for those strikes, but of the attacks carried out in Iraq by the anti-Islamic State coalition over the past 17 months, two-thirds of them—or nearly 4,500—have been carried out by the United States.

The Jan. 21 report in The Daily Beast says the U.S. military will admit responsibility for nearly two dozen civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria in a series of reports to be released in the coming weeks. Whether those reports can truly be said to reflect the reality of war is anyone’s guess, however—it’s safe to assume no military is eager to overcount the civilians it kills—and as journalist Nancy Youssef observes in the piece, “There is little pressure from Capitol Hill for the U.S. military to explain how it assesses civilian deaths by American airstrikes or what it is doing to prevent them.”

In other words we can expect more conservative estimates of these airstrikes’ impact on the people those ordering them say they are intended to save, and little in the way of an outcry from politicians or the press.

When it comes to war as it comes to much of the more unseemly aspects of life, ignorance is often mistaken for bliss—and ignorance prevails on Capitol Hill. Darker truths, including more accurate body counts, are not all that hard to find, however.

Airwars.org, a nonprofit organization founded by former BBC journalists to track the international air campaign in Iraq and Syria, is fairly certain: the U.S. has killed well over the 21 civilians it admits. On its website, the group says that in addition to the deaths already acknowledged, “between 798 and 1,122 civilian non-combatants appear likely to have been killed” since the U.S.-led air campaign began.

While the U.S. carries out the vast majority of the coalition airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, the anti-Islamic State group coalition that it leads includes Australia, Canada, France, Jordan, the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia, among others.

Chris Woods, director of Airwars.org, told teleSUR there is little doubt that the official U.S. tally is far too low to reflect the harsh reality of its air war on the ground.

On the question of civilian deaths, “all casualty recorders—in both Iraq and Syria—are in agreement that, based on credible reports, hundreds of non-combatants have so far likely been killed by the U.S.-led coalition following more than 9,000 airstrikes.” Any official acknowledgement is welcome, he said, but “the U.S. and its allies are still majorly under-reporting the numbers of civilians they’re killing.”

Zareena Grewal, a professor of American and religious studies at Yale University, knows that all too well. In Oct. 2015, she published a piece in The New York Times about a set of U.S. airstrikes on the Iraqi city of Mosul that reportedly targeted extremists, but in fact “flattened the homes of my husband’s cousins, instantly killing four innocent civilians.” A college professor and his 17-year-old son were killed, as well as a mother and her 21-year-old daughter. The “weapons storage facility belong to the Islamic State” that was the reported target, however, still stands.

“Iraqi civilian losses used to be referred to as the inevitable ‘collateral damage’ of war,” Grewal wrote, “but from the scant Arabic media coverage and the silence of the Western press, it is painfully clear that the deaths of my loved ones have not even earned that ghastly euphemism.” The U.S. government has acknowledged Grewal’s “allegation” but has not admitted to carrying out the airstrikes that took four innocent lives and rocked the lives of those who loved them.

Still, while the U.S. has conceded responsibility for only fraction of the “collateral damage”—dead men, women and children—it has caused in Iraq and Syria, other foreign powers operating in the region’s increasingly crowded skies have yet to concede even one innocent death.

In October 2015 alone, Woods told the website Syria Direct, Russian airstrikes in Syria killed between “345 and 501 men, women and children” who were non-combatants, roughly the same number of Syrian civilians killed by the U.S.-led coalition between August 2014 and January 2016. The reason for the faster growing death toll, Woods argued, is that Russia has been dropping bombs in Syria at a much faster pace than the coalition using older, less precise munitions.

The Russian government claims all of those killed by the air campaign it began in September 2015 were members of the Islamic State group or al-Nusra, the Syrian affiliate of al-Qaida. This week, however, two nongovernmental organizations perceived as aligned with the opposition claimed its airstrikes had killed over 1,000 civilians. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whose bombs are killing who, however: In Raqqa, around 40 civilians were killed in airstrikes that are, as of now, “unidentified.”

U.S. or Russian, French or British or Syrian, no air force’s bombs, no matter how great their precision or intelligence, can distinguish between a terrorist and an innocent bystander once it explodes—no matter how loathe these governments are to admit it. Nearly 19,000 Iraqis have died violent deaths since the war against the Islamic State began, and more than 250,000 Syrians have died since the 2011 uprising. If states feel comfortable bombing without fear of concern, much less legal or moral condemnation, many more will be killed by those purporting to save them.

Charles Davis is an editor at teleSUR. Follow him @charliearchy

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