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United Nations chief Guterres lands in Iraq to review aid efforts

Iraqi witnesses have said that airstrikes earlier this month killed scores of civilians.

Surging civilian casualties which have plagued American and coalition commanders in Iraq in recent days could multiply, as the US and its allies head into the most grueling phase of the campaign to liberate Mosul from the Islamic State.

General Votel said at the hearing that "it is going to become more and more hard to apply extraordinarily high standards for the things that we're doing, although we will try".

Votel said he agreed with Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend's assessment Tuesday that there is "a fair chance that our operations may have contributed to civilian casualties".

Townsend rejected claims U.S. President Donald Trump said "the fight against Daesh is too soft" and "measures taken to prevent the death of civilians were loosened". "Protection of civilians must be the absolute priority", in a post on his official Twitter account.

A U.S. military spokesman said Thursday (March 30) that Islamic State fighters had been herding local Iraqi residents into buildings in western Mosul, calculating that rising civilian casualties would restrain the United States from using airstrikes to help retake that half the city.

Iraqi forces have suffered almost 1,900 troops killed or wounded just over 30 says into the operation to retake western Mosul, Gen. Votel said.

"We have to be able to positively identify the valid military target (and) positively identify the combatant", as well as assess the potential collateral damage of a strike, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

One local health official said on Wednesday 250 bodies had been recovered from the site, though that is higher than Iraqi military estimates.

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The U.S. -led coalition fighting ISIS has acknowledged that a March 17 airstrike in western Mosul was close to the location of three houses that were leveled with dozens of civilians inside.

The Pentagon says Islamic State (IS) militants in the Iraqi city of Mosul are holding civilians in buildings by force and then deliberately attracting coalition strikes. But tens of thousands more are still trapped inside their homes, caught in the fighting, shelling and air strikes as Iraqi forces backed by a US-led coalition advance in the west.

The close-quarters fighting is focussed on the old city surrounding the mosque, where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed a caliphate almost three years ago across territory controlled by the group in both Iraq and Syria.

The UN chief pledged that the United Nations would increase its assistance to the displaced families, confirming that the worldwide organization is working and assisting the Iraqi government in building and developing the country's institutions, it said.

The Iraqi forces number around 100,000 men, he added.

Smoke rises while displaced Iraqis wait to get food supplies as Iraqi forces battle with Islamic State militants, in western Mosul, Iraq, March 27, 2017.

"It is there that the enemy has invested two-and-a-half years of defensive preparations", he said, calling it the "toughest phase" of the war.

While he did not disclose the source of the airstrike, western Mosul has recently been the target of fierce bombardments by a USA -led anti-Daesh air coalition.

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