A Dutch F-16 jet killed around 70 people in Iraq on 2 June 2015, a letter from from the Dutch defence ministry on Monday has confirmed. The jet was serving as part of the US-Coalition against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
A bomb dropped by the fighter jet targeted an alleged ISIS bomb factory in Hawija, northern Iraq. The Dutch defence ministry believed this facility was producing vehicle borne Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs).
The letter to the Dutch parliament stated that the airstrike ‘resulted in about 70 victims, including [ISIS] fighters and civilians.’ However, the Minister for Defence, Anna Bijleveld-Schouten, stated that the government did not know how many civilians were amongst the casualties.
Competing accounts of the casualty figures have emerged from journalists and NGOs. Airwars, who monitor civilian casualties in conflict, maintain that at least 70 civilians were killed in the airstrike, including 26 children and 22 women. An investigation conducted by the Dutch newspaper NRC and broadcaster NOS, similarly concluded that at least 70 civilians had been killed in the strike.
When these reports were initially published, the Dutch Ministry of Defence initially refused to confirm whether civilians were amongst the casualties.
The parliamentary debate on Tuesday night and letter which was published on Monday shed light onto what went wrong in this airstrike. In the letter, Bijleveld-Schouten writes that while their intelligence said that civilian residences were out of the blast area, ‘After the attack, however, more and larger secondary explosions took place than could have been expected from previous experience with the elimination of this type of target, resulting in a larger damage area.’
The Minister for Defence claimed there were ‘far more explosives in the IED factory than was known or could be estimated by the Netherlands.’ Inaccurate or outdated intelligence also failed to take into account the number of refugees living in the area.
The Dutch defence ministry also admitted on Monday that an airstrike on Mosul in Iraq had killed four civilians on 20 September 2015. These deaths occurred as a result of faulty intelligence which wrongly identified two houses as ISIS headquarters. The New York Times had previously published a long-form investigation in 2017 into this incident titled ‘The Uncounted’.
In response to these confirmations, the Dutch parliament hosted a debate on Tuesday night. Many of the criticisms heard in the debate centred around the lack of transparency and denials from both the current Minister for Defence, Anna Bijleveld-Schouten, and her predecessor, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert. Hennis-Plasschaert now serves as a special representative for the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq.
Addressing these denials, the Socialist Party’s Sadet Karabulut said ‘the minister cannot hide behind her predecessor. She cannot hide behind the Iraqi government. She definitely cannot hide behind her pilots. She must take responsibility. Since 2015, we have been lied to.’
MPs also questioned whether the defence ministry could be certain there were no more civilian casualties in Iraq or whether any had occurred in Syria. The Independent MP Femke Merel van Kooten asked, ‘Why has the OM [Public Prosecutors’ Office] only researched cases in Iraq? What about possible civilian casualties in our airstrikes in Syria?’
Concerns about government transparency on civilian casualties are unfortunately not unique to The Netherlands. In March 2019, Freedom of Information requests by Action on Armed Violence forced the UK’s Ministry of Defence to disclose that in over four years of airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, the Royal Air Force had only recorded one civilian casualty. This claim is widely thought to be disingenuous and lacking in transparency.
The US’s use of drone strikes across the world has been similarly met with calls for increased transparency. Indeed, these calls have become even more urgent since President Trump announced plans to cease announcing civilian casualties entirely.
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