Australia May Have Killed Up To 18 Iraqi Civilians in Air Strikes

Australian pilots involved in a joint air strike against Islamic State extremists in West Mosul may have killed up to 18 Iraqi civilians.

An investigation into the June 2017 bombings has revealed at least six Iraqis were probably killed, based on population density figures.

However, the exact number of casualties will never be known, nor their definitive cause of death.

The air strikes occurred at the height of the battle for Mosul, when Iraqi security forces were engaged in intense urban warfare against Islamic State militants.

As they prepared to advance through the neighbourhood of Al Shafaar on June 13, Iraqi soldiers spotted three IS fighters holed up inside a building, and four more in an adjacent courtyard, all carrying heavy weapons.

Fearing their forces would be wiped out, Iraqi commanders requested air support from the US-led coalition.

Two Australian pilots aboard Super Hornets joined the coalition fleet of fighter planes once their mission was legally cleared.

One Australian plane dropped a 500 pound, GPS precision-guided bomb on the building housing the IS militants, while the other pilot struck at the courtyard.

Both high-powered explosives hit their targets and neutralised the threat.

An initial post-strike review did not uncover any civilian casualties.

Australian Air Force Plane
Australian air strikes may have killed Iraqi civilians. Image: Getty Images.

However, an investigation was launched seven months later after it emerged through local and social media channels that civilians in a nearby building could have been killed.

A coalition-led investigation which concluded last month found the claims to be credible, and Australian authorities agreed, conceding it was possible the air strikes caused the unintentional civilian deaths.

It is unclear whether the civilians were killed as a result of the Australian strikes, nearby coalition strikes, ground fire from Iraqi soldiers or at the hands of IS fighters.

However, the two Australian pilots involved were not found to have acted contrary to the rules of engagement or the laws of armed conflict.

Australia's Chief of Joint Operations Mel Hupfeld said the responsibility for taking lethal action at war was a heavy burden to carry.

"Our pilots and decision-makers involved in the targeting process do everything they can to avoid civilian casualties but sometimes it is not possible," Air Marshal Hupfeld told reporters in Canberra.

READ MORE: Scott Morrison Visits Troops In Iraq

READ MORE: Five Countries Most Impacted By Terror

"This is an extraordinary thing to ask of our young men and women, the gravity of which is not lost on any of us."

Hupfeld said there was no specific intelligence to indicate civilians were in the vicinity before the strikes were launched.

But he said given the urgent circumstances facing Iraqi forces who requested the strike, it was impossible to be certain.

The chief of operations originally agreed that had Australia known the proximity of civilians at the time, the weapons would not have been fired.

But he said this needed to be balanced against the direct threat of serious injury and death to Iraqi security forces.

Welcome Home Parade
Australian soldiers who served in Iraq march through the streets of Brisbane Image: Getty Images.

Hupfeld said coalition forces had relied on intelligence from Iraqi commanders who suggested the likelihood of nearby civilians.

However, he was careful not to blame Iraq for the incident.

"We're very cognisant of the risk of inflicting civilian casualties in a very intense, complex war zone," he said.

"The action in Mosul was the most ferocious air campaign that we have seen in our generation. It is an unfortunate consequence of war that these civilian casualties occurred."

Australia has previously announced involvement in three separate potential civilian casualty allegations resulting from strikes conducted during Operation Okra. These all occurred during the Mosul offensive on 30 March 2017, 3 May 2017, and 7 June 2017. Australian strike aircraft concluded operations in January 2018.

More than 33,000 air strikes have been launched during the campaign to defeat Islamic State, claiming at least 1000 civilian lives, while liberating more than eight million Iraqis from their self-described Caliphate.

Australia still has about 600 soldiers deployed in Iraq, where IS is now largely suppressed.

At its peak, the terrorist group occupied a third of Iraqi territory.