U.S. warplanes carried out a deliberate bombing of a hospital Wednesday at the request of Iraqi forces who were under attack from Islamic State fighters in the building, a military spokesman said Thursday.
The incident took place amid fierce fighting around the Al Salem hospital complex, the largest in eastern Mosul, as Iraqi Security Forces sought to expand their foothold in the stronghold of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, said Air Force Col. John Dorrian, a spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve.
The Iraqi forces managed to take the building but then were driven back to nearby positions that were more defensible, Dorrian said in a video briefing from Baghdad to the Pentagon. As they continued to take fire from the hospital, the Iraqi forces requested the airstrike, which was approved by the U.S.
Initial assessments of the airstrike did not give U.S. officials "any reason to believe civilians were harmed," Dorrian said, but a complete analysis was "very difficult to ascertain with full and total fidelity."
Dorrian said U.S. officials were making assessment of the effects of the airstrike and the decisions that led up to it, but no decision has yet been made on whether to launch a formal investigation.
The U.S. has frequently condemned the bombing of hospitals by Russian and Syrian air forces in rebel-held areas, but Dorrian said the U.S. airstrike in Mosul was conducted only after the Iraqis requested it and officials determined that ISIS fighters were firing from the building.
The U.S. issued the following statement on the incident, using the term ISIL, another acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS:
"On Dec. 7th, after Iraqi forces continued to receive heavy and sustained machine gun and rocket propelled grenade fire from ISIL fighters in a building on the hospital complex, they requested immediate support from the coalition. In support of the Iraqi Security Forces, coalition aircraft conducted a precision strike on the location to target enemy fighters firing on Iraqi forces."
The coalition also said it "takes all feasible precautions during the planning and execution of airstrikes to reduce the risk of harm to non-combatants."
The hospital complex was less than a mile from the Tigris River running through the center of the city. Reaching the Tigris from the east was a key goal of the Mosul offensive that began on Oct. 17.
Mosul was now "completely surrounded," Dorrian said, and ISIS fighters were cut off from resupply and reinforcements. ISIS has been able to build up significant stores of weapons, ammunition and supplies since taking Mosul more than two years ago, but "those resources are finite and are being depleted," Dorrian said.
The airstrike on the hospital was believed to be the first known incident of the U.S. deliberately targeting a medical facility in Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan.
In October 2015, a U.S. AC-130 gunship fired repeatedly on a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, which had been overrun by the Taliban. At least 42 civilians were killed.
A formal investigation by the U.S. military concluded that the Kunduz airstrike was a mistake caused by poor intelligence and poor coordination by the air and ground troops, and was not deliberate.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.