By Matt Rehbein and Julia Jones
(CNN) — Russia is stepping up its criticism of US military action in Iraq — calling Pentagon comments about civilian casualties in Mosul “absurd.”
Russia’s Ministry of Defense issued a statement Sunday that derides US officials’ comments about the US-led coalition’s possible role in more than 100 civilian deaths in Mosul last month.
“Absurd statements of the Pentagon representatives justifying civil casualties caused by American bombing in Iraq give more information on the operation planning level and the alleged supremacy of the American “smart” bombs,” the statement reads.
The Russian ministry’s statement references coalition spokesperson Col. Joseph Scrocca’s comments from last week, when he told reporters that “”ISIS is smuggling civilians into buildings so we won’t see them and trying to bait the coalition to attack.”
Scrocca said the coalition had observed the new ISIS tactic on video surveillance, but US officials have not released the footage. The Russian ministry statement questions why the US military is only now revealing ISIS’ alleged new tactic — and asks why the coalition proceeded with the strike despite knowing about it.
“First, what are the motives of the American Command putting the veil of confidentiality and keeping secret the crimes of terrorists from the international community? Second, why (did) the US-led coalition, having this information, make strikes with their ‘smart’ bombs on buildings with civilians dooming them to a terrible death?”
Expanded Mosul investigation
Russia’s ramped-up criticism follows reports of heavy civilian casualties in Mosul following a US airstrike in the city’s al-Jadidah neighborhood on March 17.
Col. Mohammad Shumari, head of Iraqi civil forces working in the area, told CNN last week that 141 bodies had been removed from the location of that strike.
Last week Scrocca acknowledged “a coalition strike contributed in at least some way to the civilian casualties” in Mosul. The US has expanded its investigation into a formal review of all airstrikes in the area over a period of several days, the US military said Thursday.
The investigation was broadened after a US team visited the site of the March 17 airstrike and determined that there was evidence that the strike hit a house where civilians were located, a defense official told CNN.
The official said they are looking at any other factors that might have played into the civilian deaths, including the fact that ISIS tries to deceive US targeting. The US believes it can develop some “indicators” of when civilians are present, but the official declined to specify details due to security concerns.
Russia’s withering condemnation of US actions in Iraq reverses a trend in the two countries’ military campaigns in the Middle East. The US frequently criticized Russia for its “indiscriminate” airstrikes in Syria after Moscow began its air assault against rebel groups in late 2015.
Sunday’s condemnation of US military action in Iraq comes on the heels of more scathing criticism from Moscow. Last week Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson challenged the integrity of US foreign policy after US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that NATO needed to discuss “Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and elsewhere.”
The rising tensions are seen as an a indication that the prospect of a new era of US-Russian relations under President Trump is under threat. Two administration officials told CNN on Thursday that Trump’s hopes of striking a grand bargain with Russia have faded.
According to one senior administration official, this isn’t necessarily because Trump’s view of Russian President Vladimir Putin has evolved. But Trump believes in the current atmosphere — with so much media scrutiny and ongoing probes into Trump-Russian ties and election meddling — that it won’t be possible to “make a deal,” as the President himself has framed it, the official said.
CNN’s Tim Lister, Radina Gigova, Barbara Starr and Ryan Brown contributed to this report