In rare admission, US says civilians killed in Iraq strike

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Iraq Air Strike Likely Killed Four Civilians

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- A U.S. air strike that targeted an Islamic State checkpoint in Iraq in March likely killed four civilians, one of whom may have been a child, the U.S. military said on Friday in a rare statement acknowledging the death of civilians.

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An investigation of the March 13 strike found the checkpoint was a legitimate target, that "all reasonable measures" were taken to avoid unintended deaths and the presence of civilians could not be detected until after the warplane had launched its weapons.

Air Force officials at U.S. Central Command began investigating the air strike by an A-10 tank-killer jet near al Hatra, Iraq, after an Iraqi woman sent an email claiming her car and a second vehicle had been destroyed and the passengers killed. She sought compensation for her vehicle.

Recent airstrikes led by the United States:

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U.S.-led airstrikes in Syria
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In rare admission, US says civilians killed in Iraq strike
FILE - In this Monday, Oct. 20, 2014 file photo, thick smoke and flames from an airstrike by the U.S.-led coalition rise in Kobani, Syria, as seen from a hilltop on the outskirts of Suruc, at the Turkey-Syria border. For a force that has built its reputation on projecting an aura of momentum and invincibility, the prolonged stalemate in Kobani is a setback for Islamic State militants with potential implications in terms of recruitment and support. Nearly two months after it launched its lightning assault on the small Kurdish town, the group is bogged down with an increasingly entrenched and costly battle in which hundreds of its fighters have been killed and a good deal of its military apparatus destroyed. (AP Photo, Lefteris Pitarakis, File)
Smoke rises from the Syrian city of Kobani, following an airstrike by the US led coalition, seen from a hilltop outside Suruc, on the Turkey-Syria border Monday, Nov. 17, 2014. Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab, and its surrounding areas, has been under assault by extremists of the Islamic State group since mid-September and is being defended by Kurdish fighters. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
Smoke rises from the Syrian city of Kobani, following airstrikes by the US led coalition, seen from a hilltop outside Suruc, on the Turkey-Syria border Monday, Nov. 17, 2014. Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab, and its surrounding areas, has been under assault by extremists of the Islamic State group since mid-September and is being defended by Kurdish fighters. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
Armed people, believed to be Kurdish fighters, stand behind a wall, bottom center-left, as smoke rises from the Syrian city of Kobani, following airstrikes by the US led coalition, seen from a hilltop outside Suruc, on the Turkey-Syria border Monday, Nov. 17, 2014. Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab, and its surrounding areas, has been under assault by extremists of the Islamic State group since mid-September and is being defended by Kurdish fighters. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
Smoke rises from the Syrian city of Kobani, following airstrikes by the US led coalition, seen from a hilltop outside Suruc, on the Turkey-Syria border Monday, Nov. 17, 2014. Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab, and its surrounding areas, has been under assault by extremists of the Islamic State group since mid-September and is being defended by Kurdish fighters. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
FILE - In this Nov. 17, 2014 file photo, smoke rises from the Syrian city of Kobani, following an airstrike by the U.S.-led coalition, seen from a hilltop outside Suruc, on the Turkey-Syria border. The mass beheadings of Egyptian Christians by militants in Libya linked to the Islamic State group have thrown a spotlight on the threat the extremists pose beyond their heartland in Syria and Iraq, where they have established a self-declared proto-state. Militants in several countries - including Libya, Egypt, Algeria, Yemen and Saudi Arabia - have pledged allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda, File)
A tractor drives on agricultural fields as smoke rises from an Islamic State group position in eastern Kobani, after an airstrike by the US led coalition, seen from a hilltop outside Suruc, on the Turkey-Syria border Saturday, Nov. 8, 2014. Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab, and its surrounding areas, has been under assault by extremists of the Islamic State group since mid-September and is being defended by Kurdish fighters. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
Two bombs, seen on top right, fall on an Islamic State fighters' position in the town of Kobani during airstrikes by the US led coalition, seen from the outskirts of Suruc, near the Turkey-Syria border, Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2014. Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab, and its surrounding areas, has been under assault by extremists of the Islamic State group since mid-September and is being defended by Kurdish fighters. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
This image made from gun-camera video taken on July 4, 2015 and released by United States Central Command shows an airstrike on a bridge near Islamic State group-held Raqqa, Syria, that was a key transit route for the militants. After billions of dollars spent and more than 10,000 extremist fighters killed, the Islamic State group is fundamentally no weaker than it was when the U.S.-led bombing campaign began a year ago, American intelligence agencies have concluded. (U.S. Central Command via AP)
This image made from gun-camera video taken on July 4, 2015 and released by United States Central Command shows an airstrike on a main road and transit route near the Islamic State group-held Raqqa, Syria. After billions of dollars spent and more than 10,000 extremist fighters killed, the Islamic State group is fundamentally no weaker than it was when the U.S.-led bombing campaign began a year ago, American intelligence agencies have concluded. (U.S. Central Command via AP)
In this photo taken from the Turkish side of the border between Turkey and Syria, in Akcakale, southeastern Turkey, people watch as smoke from a US-led airstrike rises over the outskirts of Tal Abyad, Syria, Monday, June 15, 2015. Thousands of Syrians cut through the border fence and crossed over into Turkey Sunday, fleeing intense fighting in northern Syria between Kurdish fighters and jihadis. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
In this photo taken from the Turkish side of the border between Turkey and Syria, in Akcakale, Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey, smoke from a US-led airstrike rises over the outskirts of Tal Abyad, Syria, Sunday, June 14, 2015. Syrian Kurdish fighters closed in on the outskirts of a strategic Islamic State-held town on the Turkish border Sunday, Kurdish officials and an activist group said, potentially cutting off a key supply line for the extremists' nearby de facto capital. Taking Tal Abyad, some 80 kilometers (50 miles) from the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa, would mean the group wouldn't have a direct route to bring in new foreign militants or supplies.(AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
Turkish soldiers guard the border area with Syria in Akcakale, southeastern Turkey, as smoke from a fire caused by a US-led airstrike rises over the outskirts of Tal Abyad, Syria, Monday, June 15, 2015. A day after thousands of Syrians cut through the border fence and crossed over into Turkey, fleeing intense fighting in northern Syria between Kurdish fighters and Islamic State group, Turkish army retook control. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
FILE - In this Oct. 22, 2014, file photo, thick smoke from an airstrike by the US-led coalition rises in Kobani, Syria, as seen from a hilltop on the outskirts of Suruc, at the Turkey-Syria border. For four months, Syrian Kurdish fighters battled Islamic State militants in the rubble-strewn streets and crumpled buildings in the town of Kobani as U.S. aircraft pounded the extremists from the skies above. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis, File)
A bombs, seen top left, falls on an Islamic State position in eastern Kobani, during an airstrike by the US led coalition, seen from a hilltop outside Suruc, on the Turkey-Syria border Saturday, Nov. 8, 2014. Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab, and its surrounding areas, has been under assault by extremists of the Islamic State group since mid-September and is being defended by Kurdish fighters. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
Children run on a hillside as smoke rises from an Islamic State fighters position in the town of Kobani during airstrikes by the US led coalition, seen from the outskirts of Suruc, near the Turkey-Syria border, Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2014. Kobani, also known as Ayn Arab, and its surrounding areas, has been under assault by extremists of the Islamic State group since mid-September and is being defended by Kurdish fighters. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
In this photo taken Tuesday, March 10, 2015, members of a U.S. Air Force munitions team assemble guided bombs to support the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing at the al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar. The base is the regional nerve center for the air war against the militants who have taken over nearly a third of Iraq and Syria. That makes it the main hub for coordinating warplanes from the U.S. and 11 other nations in the coalition carrying out bombing raids. (AP Photo/Adam Schreck)
In this photo taken Monday, March 9, 2015, a B-1 bomber prepares to land after finishing a mission at the al-Udeid Air Base in Doha, Qatar. The base is the regional nerve center for the air war against the militants who have taken over nearly a third of Iraq and Syria. That makes it the main hub for coordinating warplanes from the U.S. and 11 other nations in the coalition carrying out bombing raids. (AP Photo/Osama Faisal)
A U.S. military officer looks out at the flight deck of the French navy aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle in the Persian Gulf as the U.S. helicopter prepares for takeoff Thursday, March 19, 2015. The Charles de Gaulle, France's only aircraft carrier and the flagship of the French navy, arrived in the Persian Gulf last month to help provide additional air power to the U.S.-led coalition conducting airstrikes against the Islamic State militants who have seized a third of Iraq and Syria. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali)
FILE - In this Aug. 10, 2014 file photo, an aircraft lands after missions targeting the Islamic State group in Iraq from the deck of the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush in the Persian Gulf. Combined U.S.-Arab airstrikes at the heart of the Islamic State group's military strongholds in Syria achieved their strategic aim of showing the extremists that their savage attacks will not go unanswered, the top American military officer said Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali, File)
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"The preponderance of the evidence gathered during the investigation indicates that the air strikes likely resulted in the deaths of four non-combatants," the military said in a statement.

The person who notified the U.S. military about the incident said two women and three children had been killed. A U.S. military analysis indicated one of the people was much smaller than the rest and may have been a child.

But the military said in a statement it could not be certain about the age or gender of those killed without forensic examination or other evidence not available to the coalition.

The U.S. military has rarely acknowledged causing civilian casualties in the fight against Islamic State militants, with Friday's announcement bringing the total to six. In May, it concluded two children had been killed in an air strike in Syria in November 2014. It is investigating a few dozen other reports.

"If we knew there were civilians we would not have conducted a strike," Air Force Colonel Patrick Ryder, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, said at a briefing on Friday.

The killings in March occurred when a U.S. warplane attacked an Islamic State checkpoint that had been "thoroughly reviewed and validated" as a target, according to an investigative report released by the U.S. military.

As the warplane prepared to attack, a GMC sport-utility vehicle and a black Kia sedan arrived at the checkpoint, the report said. The drivers got out of their vehicles and spoke to militants manning the checkpoint for about 40 minutes, it said.

Several other vehicles pulled up to the checkpoint during that time and continued their journey after a brief stop. The aircrew executing the strike relayed that information to the Combined Air Operations Center that coordinates military air traffic in the region.

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"Based upon the actions on the ground by the personnel at the checkpoint, the aircrew and CAOC personnel assessed that the drivers and vehicles, as well as the checkpoint, were ISIL and therefore lawful targets," the report said, using an acronym for Islamic State.

An analysis of video footage taken by the warplane's weapons systems showed that four people, whose presence was previously unknown, got out of the two vehicles after "the aircrews had released weapons on the target and immediately before the weapons impacted the target area," the report said.

"Video footage review indicates the aircrew had no opportunity to detect the presence of the likely civilians in the target area prior to weapons impact," the investigation found.

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