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Amid Spike in Civilian Deaths from U.S. Strikes, Trump Requests Lifting Policy Limiting Casualties

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On Thursday, a U.S. Reaper drone struck a gathering in a rebel-held village in Aleppo province, killing as many as 49 people. Monitoring groups say most of the dead were civilians who had gathered at a mosque to pray, while the Pentagon claims the gathering was a meeting of al-Qaeda members. The next day, 42 Somali refugees were gunned down by a helicopter gunship near the Yemen coast. Somalia accused Saudi Arabia of carrying out the strike. Eyewitness accounts suggest a U.S.-made Apache helicopter was used to carry out the deadly strike. For more, we speak with Samuel Oakford, investigative reporter for the journalistic project Airwars, who reports that the number of civilian casualties in U.S. airstrikes has been escalating since Donald Trump took office two months ago.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to look at two recent harrowing attacks involving the United States and its allies—one in Syria, the other off the coast of Yemen. The first took place Thursday, when a U.S. Reaper drone struck a gathering in a rebel-held village near Aleppo. As many as 49 people died. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, most of the dead were civilians who had gathered at a mosque to pray. The Pentagon acknowledged carrying out strikes on this village, but denied hitting a mosque. Pentagon officials said that the gathering was a meeting of al-Qaeda members. This is a Syrian ambulance driver Munther Abu Amar.

MUNTHER ABU AMAR: [translated] I’m an ambulance driver, Munther Abu Amar, from Aleppo’s western province. We came here after we were called, after an airstrike targeted the mosque while worshipers were inside. There are more than 30 martyrs, and dozens of injured people were transported to the Atareb hospital. There are still many people who are missing, five or six missing people. One of the martyrs was an elderly woman who lived close to the mosque. God help us.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, 42 Somali refugees were killed Friday when they were gunned down by a helicopter gunship near the Yemen coast. Somalia accused Saudi Arabia of carrying out the strike. Eyewitness accounts suggest a U.S.-made Apache helicopter was used to carry out the deadly strike.

This comes as the journalistic project Airwars is reporting the number of civilian casualties in U.S. airstrikes has been escalating since Donald Trump took office two months ago today.

We’re joined now by Samuel Oakford, investigative reporter for Airwars.

So, Sam, you recently tracked the thousandth civilian casualty tied to coalition strikes in Iraq and Syria. Can you talk about what we just learned about Saudi Arabia attacking the Somali refugees, Syria, Iraq? What about these increasing numbers, casualties?

SAMUEL OAKFORD: So, there’s a lot to unpackage here. There’s a unilateral campaign against al-Qaeda targets in Syria, which is what that mosque strike was. There’s also the anti-ISIL coalition strikes, which is what we were tracking, and when you refer to the thousandth allegation, that’s what that was. And that goes back to 2014. Then there’s also the war that the U.S. is supporting in Yemen. So there’s three separate things.

The casualties we’re seeing increase are largely in Syria and Iraq, and they have to do with the anti-ISIL coalition campaign. In Mosul, we’ve seen more than 300 civilian casualties in the past month alone. The fighting in west Mosul is becoming really horrible and in much denser areas, much more packed, in Raqqa, as well, where the coalition has focused its bombs and ground forces. We’ve seen over 150 casualties since the beginning of the year. These numbers are increasing. They were increasing under the last—during the last months of the Obama administration, but there have been some signs that they’re increasing further currently.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, there’s a pretty huge discrepancy between the numbers that you’ve been compiling and the numbers that the U.S. and its allies are acknowledging. Could you talk about that, how that—how that has happened?

SAMUEL OAKFORD: Sure. Yeah, the coalition has admitted thus far to 220 civilian casualties, going back to 2014. We—our best estimates are that over 10 times as many civilians have died in that time, so around 2,500. It’s increasing every day. I could—you know, you’d have to check, actually, to see what the figure is now. The U.S. is the only coalition member to have admitted casualties. So, there’s a lot of partner nations—you know, France, the U.K. They launched a substantial number of strikes. They’ve admitted to no civilian casualties. That’s a big issue. The coalition has made efforts in the past few months to try to incorporate additional reporting, but our fear is that the sheer number of strikes means that any effort they’ve made so far, they’re going to fall behind. And what we’re seeing now means that that discrepancy could grow further.

AMY GOODMAN: Where do you get these numbers, when you say you believe 10 times? What is Airwars? How are you counting?

SAMUEL OAKFORD: That’s a good question. We have a team of researchers that focus on Arabic-language media, that look at social media, which is really, really important here. A lot of these things, you’d never find out about unless you look at people’s Facebooks, unless you look at Twitter, unless you look at any number of other social media outlets, and you piece together kind of the constellation of evidence. And if there’s more than two credible sources and the coalition has reported strikes in the area, then you can assess that as a “fair strike.” So, the total number of allegations is far higher. That’s the thousand figure. The 2,500 deaths is from the vetted figure that we look at.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I want to turn to something Donald Trump said in December 2015 regarding his plans for fighting ISIS.

DONALD TRUMP: The other thing is with the terrorists. You have to take out their families. When you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families. They—they care about their lives, don’t kid yourself. But they say they don’t care about their lives. You have to take out their families.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Your response to that, and also to the news reports that we—that have been surfacing, that Trump is paying far less attention to these actual strikes than President Obama did, who had a much more hands-on approach to being sure he vetted every strike?

SAMUEL OAKFORD: Yeah. I mean, that audio clip is—I’m sure, horrifies a lot of people. It would violate international law, if you’re purposely going after civilians. I’m sure it would horrify a lot of people in the U.S. military also.

I guess if you fast-forward to once Trump is now president, in late January, he issues this memorandum that calls for, within 30 days, a plan to take on ISIS. He promises throughout his campaign. It’s not clear exactly, you know, what that would entail. But in the request, he asks the military to consider drawing back limits to their civilian casualty policy. He said, in essence, “If you’re doing anything above the level of what international law asks, why don’t you maybe not do that?” And that’s an extremely worrying sign. And if you put together all the signs right now, this strike on a mosque—or the U.S. says they didn’t know it was a mosque, which in some ways is more troubling—you look at the increasing civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria, in Raqqa and Mosul, and then you look at even in Yemen, where there’s been like a rash of strikes there, that’s a picture that’s evolving, and you can imagine that that might have played a role, this request.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, the issue of the changing jurisdiction, who approves, signs off on, kill lists, Donald Trump signaling, though this didn’t get a lot of attention, that the CIA could do it on their own, that the Pentagon—that he wouldn’t personally have to be on top of this, how does this affect the reporting you’re doing?

SAMUEL OAKFORD: Well, our reporting primarily has to do with the coalition. So, there were CIA—there’s been a CIA strike recently, that the global number two for al-Qaeda was killed in Syria. But the vast majority of these civilian casualties are coming from this military campaign in Raqqa and Mosul. And one of the ways that this could manifest itself is that lower-level commanders could approve things that could be kind of the gradient moves, where they can approve operations where there might be more civilians. And, you know, you can look at the targeted killings and things like that, but the real numbers right now are coming from just airstrikes, artillery, things like that, in those areas.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you, Samuel Oakford, for joining us, in-house investigative reporter for Airwars. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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