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Scrutinize US air strikes more closely

Updated: 2016-08-05 09:35
By Chen Weihua (China Daily)

Scrutinize US air strikes more closely

US officials say two F-15 aircraft launched an airstrike against the Islamic State’s leader in Libya. [Photo/Agencies]

Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook issued a statement on Monday saying that on the request of the Libyan Government of National Accord, the US military conducted precision air strikes against Islamic State group targets in Sirte, Libya. He said Monday's action and those taken previously will help prevent the IS group from gaining a haven in Libya from which it could attack the United States and its allies.

The words seem carefully chosen to show that the US actions were not uninvited but "at the request of the Libyan" government, and that the air strikes were precise. But actually they reveal the problems with US air strikes, manned or unmanned.

The US has launched many air strikes in other countries without their governments' requests, even against their strong opposition. For example, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said US-led air strikes in al-Ghandour near Manbij, Syria, on July 28, killed at least 28 civilians, including seven children.

That attack took place just a day after the US announced a formal probe into the air strikes by the US-led coalition in the same area that might have left many civilians dead. According to Airwars, a non-profit project that monitors air strikes in Iraq and Syria, between 78 and 203 civilians were killed in suspected US raids on July 19. It seems the decisions to launch air strikes have been made at random. The US military does not look to have much clue about whom it targets while dropping the bombs and whom it kills and maims.

On July 28, the US Central Command said six separate US air strikes in Syria and Iraq from July 28, 2015, to April 29, 2016, caused 14 civilian deaths. A month ago, the White House had said in a report that from Jan 20, 2009, to Dec 31, 2015, the US had carried out 473 drone strikes outside of "areas of active hostilities", killing between 2,372 and 2,581 combatants and 64 to 115 civilians.

Yet both reports are widely regarded as grossly underestimating civilian casualties. Airwars figures show that between 773 and 1,180 civilians have reportedly been killed in the US-led coalition's air strikes in Syria since August 2014.

This heartbreaking news, sadly, has not hit the headlines of US mainstream media; some outlets covered it, though. While CNN America calls everything breaking news, it has not treated the deaths of civilians in US air strikes as one, at least not in my memory. Instead, most American cable networks cover 24x7 a shooting in a US city even if one person is killed.

The Pentagon, of course, is known for tightening the rules, making it more difficult for journalists to cover US military activities. And US leaders have not apologized or offered compensation for such civilian casualties. The only exception was when the US Air Force AC-130U gunship fired at a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders in Afghanistan on Oct 3, 2015, killing 42 people and leaving 30 wounded. US President Barack Obama offered a rare apology as the international medical organization called the US action a "war crime."

Most US citizens don't have any idea of the alarming number of civilian casualties caused by US air strikes. At the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia last week, protesters held exhibits outside the City Hall, calling for a halt to US drone attacks. The protesters singled out Obama and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton as being responsible for those air strikes and for causing the mess in Libya.

The US not only needs to show more transparency about its air strikes and let the world know the civilian casualties. It also needs to show courage to apologize to and compensate families of innocent people killed or injured.

The author is deputy editor of China Daily USA. chenweihua@chinadailyusa.com

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