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After Initial Denial, US Military Investigating Syria Mosque Bombing that Killed 49 Civilians

US Navy F-18E Super Hornets flying over Iraq after conducting an airstrike in Syria. (Pentagon photo)

The US military is formally investigating an American air strike that Pentagon officials said targeted al-Qaeda militants but which survivors, local officials and human rights monitors said killed dozens of innocent civilians in a mosque complex.

In a pattern that has become familiar throughout its ongoing 15-year war against Islamist terrorism, the US initially denied bombing the Omar ibn al-Khatab mosque in Al Jinah, in Aleppo province. But as evidence and outrage mount, Pentagon officials are belatedly probing the strike to determine whether there is evidence that civilians were killed and to confirm that US forces are responsible.

Some 49 civilians perished in the March 16 air strike. US military officials admit carrying out the attack but have said the mosque was not the target. “We did not target a mosque, but the building that we did target —  which was where the meeting took place —  is about 50ft (15m) from a mosque that is still standing,” Col. John J. Thomas, spokesman for US Central Command, told reporters, adding that “US forces conducted an air strike on an al-Qaeda in Syria meeting location March 16 in Idlib, Syria, killing several terrorists.” Thomas called the attack a “precision strike.”

Human rights monitors said more than 100 people were injured in the attack. Village resident Abu Muhammed told Agence France-Presse he “heard powerful explosions when the mosque was hit. It was right after prayers at a time when there are usually religious lessons for men in it.”

“I saw 15 bodies and lots of body parts in the debris when I arrived,” he added. “We couldn’t even recognize some of the bodies.”

Longtime US enemy al-Qaeda has called on Muslims to take revenge against the United States for the mosque attack. “Do not consult with anyone in the killing of Americans, go forth with the blessing of God,” an article published by al-Qaeda’s An-Nafir newsletter implores.

More than 400,000 Syrians have been killed, and millions more displaced, in five years of civil war between the longtime ruling Bashar al-Assad dictatorship, which is backed by Russia, and various insurgent forces, including Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda. The majority of Syrian civilian deaths have been caused by regime forces, who have allegedly used chemical weapons in their desperate bid to preserve Assad’s power.

The US has admitted its forces have killed hundreds of civilians since it began bombing IS targets in 2014, but human rights and monitor groups accuse Washington of dramatically underreporting the number of Iraqi and Syrian civilians killed during the war. According to the independent monitor group Airwars, US and coalition air strikes are now killing more Syrian civilians than Russian bombings, although Russian-backed Syrian ground troops are killing far more civilians than their coalition counterparts.

A recent surge in US-caused civilian deaths comes as the Trump administration announced it will deploy a Marine amphibious task force to Syria to provide artillery fire support and other assistance aimed at ousting IS from its de facto capital of Raqqa. US Central Command (CENTCOM) commander Gen. Joseph Votel recently said even more US ground troops would be needed to support the assault on Raqqa, and that more American forces are needed to assist their Afghan counterparts who have lost territory to the Taliban.

More than 15 years of continuous US-led war against Islamist militants in the Middle East, South Asia and North Africa have taken a heavy toll on civilians. Estimates of the number of innocent people killed range from the low hundreds of thousands to over 1.3 million. Many observers fear the spike in civilian deaths since President Donald Trump took office will continue, as the president has promised to “bomb the shit out of” IS and kill the innocent families of suspected militants. “You have to take out their families, when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families,” Trump said in December 2015.

Last week, the Trump administration said it was moving ahead with plans to make it easier for the military and Central Intelligence Agency to target enemy forces with drones, even if it means more innocent people will be killed. Changes include declaring more places “areas of active hostilities” and granting military and CIA forces greater autonomy to launch strikes without presidential approval in countries including Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Afghanistan. “Some of the Obama administration rules were getting in the way of good strikes,” a US official briefed on the changes told NBC News.

Since the end of World War II, US military forces have killed more foreign civilians than any other armed force in the world, by far.

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