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Is The U.S. Portraying Civilians As The Enemy?

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A year ago today, a U.S. raid in Syria led to the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. U.S. officials celebrated the operation, but NPR reported on a van destroyed by U.S. forces in the raid where Syrians said civilians were killed and wounded. That prompted a military investigation. Now, NPR's Daniel Estrin says the results are in but still leave questions about whether innocent men were killed.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: While U.S. forces were closing in on ISIS founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, three Syrian men were driving close by, and U.S. forces attacked their van. Two of the Syrians were killed and a third survived, but part of his arm was blown off. He is Barakat Barakat. Here's what he told us last year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BARAKAT BARAKAT: (Through interpreter) I was with my best friends. They wanted to drop me off at home. We had pumpkin seeds and bought coffee on the road and were having fun. We were driving through the village of Barisha. And at that moment, the helicopters arrived. Suddenly, we were hit. I didn't know what was going on. I was just trying to escape death.

ESTRIN: He says they had no idea they were driving near Baghdadi's hideout.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KENNETH MCKENZIE: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.

ESTRIN: U.S. Commander Gen. Kenneth McKenzie briefed reporters a few days after the raid. He said every effort was made to avoid civilian casualties. And he was asked about the mangled van. Pictures of it were in the news.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCKENZIE: So the white van that you talk about was one of the vehicles that displayed hostile intent, came toward us and it was destroyed.

ESTRIN: But the general offered no more details. NPR contacted the military last year, and it was the first they'd heard of possible civilian casualties. They told us they'd look into it. In July, spokesman Capt. Bill Urban wrote us that the military's formal investigation showed that the troops did nothing wrong. He provided more details this weekend. He says a U.S. helicopter fired warning shots, but the van sped up towards it, so it fired on the van to protect ground troops.

We took this to retired Maj. Gen. Dana Pittard, whose book "Hunting The Caliphate" chronicles his fight against ISIS. He already left the Army by this raid, but we asked him about what had happened.

DANA PITTARD: It's certainly regrettable - I mean, terribly regrettable. But I don't know if I would have made a different call.

ESTRIN: He says the U.S. forces didn't know the Syrian men's intentions and had to protect themselves. But he can also put himself in the Syrians' shoes. They're driving down a village road at night, and suddenly, warning shots ring out.

PITTARD: And assume it was dark. And you see a shot out there. What is your inclination? Just put your foot on the pedal and keep going. So you don't know the direction of the shot. I mean, what do you expect at night?

ESTRIN: After the van was hit, the men fled. Barakat says they were just running for their lives. The military spokesman says they didn't raise their hands and ran towards the compound. So the Army fired at them again, even though the men did not open fire themselves, and there's no evidence they had weapons. He said the Army has concluded the men were enemy combatants. He said they would not be eligible for the compensation the U.S. sometimes pays civilians. Retired Maj. Gen. Pittard thinks the Army should pay.

PITTARD: Could they not find it, you know, in their hearts to have some kind of restitution and then move on?

ESTRIN: The question is whether in a high-profile raid, the Army could be portraying civilians as combatants. The victims' relatives and friends insist they were civilians. I got back in touch with Barakat, the sole survivor of the attack. He told me he can only move two fingers. He needs surgery.

BARAKAT: (Through interpreter) Sometimes I cry. I think of my kids in that I'm unable to do anything for them. I'm ashamed. I can't work. I'm crippled. The whole world turned its back on me. The Americans - I don't feel like they have a soul which empathizes with what has happened to us.

ESTRIN: He'd like the military to contact him for his side of the story.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.