BAGHDAD, Dec 19, (AFP): Iraq has opened an investigation into the circumstances that led to the death of 10 Iraqi soldiers in a coalition air strike west of Baghdad, the defence minister said Saturday. “We lost 10 of our soldiers,” Khaled al-Obeidi said in Baghdad, adding that “an investigation into the incident was opened.” A statement from the Joint Operations Command on Friday mentioned that 10 had been “wounded or killed” but Obeidi and another senior military source clarified Saturday that 10 troops were killed. According to the joint command, the incident occurred when two coalition strikes allowed Iraqi ground forces to advance rapidly towards positions held by fighters of the Islamic State group south of their stronghold of Fallujah. A third air strike struck when the two sides were in close combat, resulting in casualties to both, it said. The US military acknowledged a coalition strike may have caused casualties among the ranks of the Iraqi security forces it supports in Fallujah and elsewhere in the country. “Despite coordination with the Iraqi security forces on the ground, initial reports indicate the possibility one of the strikes resulted in the death of Iraqi soldiers,” a statement said on Friday.
It said the US military would launch its own investigation into what it described as likely the first “friendly fire” incident involving the coalition since the war against IS was launched last year. “We will conduct a thorough investigation and express deepest condolences for any loss of life among brave Iraqi soldiers fighting ISIL,” top US envoy to the coalition Brett McGurk said on social media, using another acronym for IS. The American airstrike that may have killed a number of Iraqi soldiers on Friday seems to be “a mistake that involved both sides,” US Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Saturday. He called Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al- Abadi to express condolences. Speaking to reporters during a visit to the USS Kearsarge in the Arabian Gulf, Carter said the incident near the western Iraqi city of Fallujah was “regrettable.” “These kinds of things happen when you’re fighting side by side as we are,” Carter said. He said the airstrike Friday “has all the indications of being a mistake of the kind that can happen on a dynamic battlefield.” Carter, who spent two days in Iraq this past week, called Abadi from the USS Kearsarge, an amphibious assault ship supporting coalition missions in Iraq and Syria against Islamic State militants. The Kearsarge carries a Marine expeditionary unit and naval aircraft. The Pentagon chief did not provide details about the airstrike, which the US military headquarters in charge of the war effort in Syria and Iraq said was one of several it conducted Friday against IS targets. A US military statement said the airstrikes came in response to requests and information provided by Iraqi security forces on the ground near Fallujah, which is in IS control, and were done in coordination with Iraqi forces. A senior US defense official said there was fog in that area and that weather may have played a role in the incident. The official was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Carter said he told Abadi that the United States was investigating and would work with the Iraqis. Asked if he was worried the deaths might further anger Iraqi citizens who may not be happy with the American and coalition presence in Iraq, Carter said, “I hope Iraqis will understand that this is a reflection of things that happen in combat. But it’s also a reflection of how closely we are working with the government” of Iraq. He added that during the call, both he and Abadi recognized that “things like this can happen in war.” The US military statement Friday said the strike may have resulted in the death of Iraqi soldiers. The statement did not say how many Iraqi soldiers may have been killed; other officials said the Iraqis initially reported that about 10 may have died. When asked how many Iraqis may have been killed, the US military command known as Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve said, “The coalition is investigating the incident and will make further details available when appropriate.” Carter met with Abadi during a stop in Baghdad on Monday to discuss the fight against IS, and the US and coalition plans to accelerate the campaign. Meanwhile, Iraq’s defence minister predicted Saturday that security forces backed by US-led coalition air strikes would retake full control of the city of Ramadi by the end of the year. “I met with the Joint Operations Command and they confirmed to me that we will regain all of the city of Ramadi by the end of this month,” Khaled al- Obeidi told reporters in Baghdad. Earlier this month, forces led by Iraq’s elite counter-terrorism service retook Al- Tameem, a southwestern neighbourhood of Ramadi from the Islamic State group.
IS took full control of Ramadi in mid- May, in what was Baghdad’s most stinging defeat since it launched a counteroffensive to regain the large regions the jihadists captured in the summer of 2014. The offensive in Al-Tameem this month marked a significant step in longdelayed efforts to recapture the city, around 100 kms (60 miles) west of Baghdad and capital of the vast province of Anbar. “The reason the battle took so long was to avoid casualties among our forces and also to avoid civilian casualties,” Obeidi said. “There are still many civilians in the city.” Jihadists still holed up in the city centre and using tunnels to avoid air strikes may number no more than 300, according to military officials. IS fighters attacking from northwest of Ramadi with suicide car bombs attempted to retake control of the key Palestine bridge in recent days but Iraqi forces still have the upper hand.