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Pentagon files reveal flaws in U.S. claims about Syrian casualties in Baghdadi raid

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

For years, the Pentagon has denied that U.S. troops harmed civilians in the 2019 raid on ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As a reminder, in that raid, Baghdadi blew himself up as special operations forces attacked his house in Syria. But NPR reported back then that a Syrian man was badly wounded and his two friends were killed when U.S. aircraft struck the van that they were in. The Pentagon has said that they were combatants, but NPR has now analyzed internal documents and found flaws in how the U.S. came to that conclusion.

FADEL: NPR's Daniel Estrin has been working on this for years and joins us now. Hi, Daniel.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: Good morning. So let's start with that Syrian survivor of the airstrikes and what he's told you about what happened to him.

ESTRIN: His name is Barakat Ahmad Barakat. He says he was at work with two friends at an olive oil press, and his friends were giving him a ride back home. And he says they had no idea that further down the road, U.S. forces were raiding the hideout of the founder of ISIS.

BARAKAT AHMAD BARAKAT: (Through interpreter) There was nothing suspicious at all. We kept moving normally. There was nothing ahead of us on the road. Suddenly I felt something hit us.

ESTRIN: They were hit with U.S. airstrikes. His two friends were killed. His right hand was blown off. His left hand can barely function. He says today he cannot work. He struggles to feed his five young children. He wants compensation from the U.S.

FADEL: And what's the Pentagon's account, and how did you investigate it?

ESTRIN: When we first brought this account to the Pentagon, it was a few weeks after the raid, and the Pentagon says it was the first that they had heard of those claims. But it did a review of what happened, and they got back to us and said that the men were enemy combatants. They had demonstrated hostile intent. They ignored U.S. warning shots and kept driving in the direction of the raid. But the Pentagon did not give us many other details.

This was a confidential report that they had prepared. So we sued the Pentagon to get access to that report under the Freedom of Information Act. And we got it. And we discovered flaws in the Pentagon's story. The main thing that we found was around the central claim that the Pentagon put forward. The Pentagon said that the van ignored warning shots, but we concluded that those warning shots provided hardly any warning at all. We estimate about two or three seconds, if you look at the Pentagon's own account...

FADEL: Wow.

ESTRIN: ...And compare it to the aerial images from the operation. And remember, Leila, this was at night, so this would have been a total blur to a driver. And also in the Pentagon report, there was a recommendation to prepare a top-secret document addressing the Pentagon's conclusion that these men were combatants and not civilians. But the Pentagon told NPR they have no record that that document was ever produced.

FADEL: So what you're describing - I mean, two or three seconds to react - not very long. The Pentagon, though, still concludes these men were combatants. What can we conclude about what happened that night, based on what you saw and what you are seeing?

ESTRIN: Well, former advisers to the Pentagon tell me that, you know, you can understand that a U.S. pilot may have made a decision to strike in the heat of the moment in the fog of war. But all these years later, the Pentagon still has not produced any evidence to back up their claim that these men were enemy belligerents. And these experts say, you know, it looks like a case of mistaken identity. Now, a New York-based advocacy group, the Zomia Center, has requested that the Defense Department reopen this case. The Defense Department has said it is looking into that request, so this may not be case closed.

FADEL: NPR's Daniel Estrin. Thank you for this reporting, Daniel.

ESTRIN: You're welcome.

FADEL: Daniel's story aired yesterday on All Things Considered, and you can see some of the Pentagon documents, photos of the survivor and more on the story in English and Arabic at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.