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Is the Australia Defence Force transparent enough about its role in Iraq and Syria? -

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LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: As you may know, Australia's Air Force has been carrying out air strikes in Syria and Iraq as part of the international coalition fighting terrorist group Islamic State. Some of those bombings have been in densely populated civilian areas. January was reportedly the deadliest month yet for civilians since the start of air strikes.

Is there enough transparency from Australian authorities about our nation's role in the campaign? Middle East correspondent Sophie McNeill's been investigating whether the Australian Defence Force is as transparent as the United States when it comes to tracking civilian casualties.

SOPHIE MCNEILL, REPORTER: An air strike obliterates a house in East Mosul. The target was Islamic State, but 11 members of the one family were reportedly killed - five children among the dead.

CHRIS WOODS, AIRWARS DIRECTOR: You don't get to drop bombs on cities and towns and not kill civilians. And it took a month before it was safe enough to dig those bodies out. We know the names of every one of those victims.

SOPHIE MCNEILL: What's not known is who's responsible for the loss of these innocent lives.

CHRIS WOODS: Now, we know the coalition bombed in Mosul that day. Iraq may also have bombed that day, the Iraqi Air Force. It may have been the US. It may have been Britain. It may have been Australia or Belgium, France. We don't know.

BEN EMMERSON QC, UN SPECIAL RAPPORTEUR: So, if there is credible information suggesting that civilian casualties have been sustained, then that must be investigated and, subject to national security considerations, must be released to the public.

SOPHIE MCNEILL: Australia is part of the coalition which has dropped more than 69,000 bombs and missiles on ISIS targets in Syria and north Iraq.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: Mama!

SOPHIE MCNEILL: The risk of civilian casualties is incredibly high, because IS fighters deliberately hide in densely populated areas. It presents a logistical and legal nightmare for coalition members like Australia.

VICE ADMIRAL DAVID JOHNSTON, CHIEF OF JOINT OPERATIONS, ADF: The degree of complexity in the current phase of the operation will be heightened, also, by the potential presence of up to 750,000 civilians, who may be remaining in West Mosul.

SOPHIE MCNEILL: Questions over Australia's secrecy in war are now being raised.

CHRIS WOODS: In our view, there's just no real transparency from Australia here, and there's no real accountability, either.

SOPHIE MCNEILL: Chris Woods is the director of Airwars, an independent NGO set up to hold nations accountable for deaths from air strikes. They have hundreds of cases of civilians allegedly killed in Syria and Iraq from coalition bombings, with the names, ages, locations and details of how people died.

CHRIS WOODS: Everyone in Iraq and Syria has a cell phone. Everybody is taking videos, photographs, uploading stuff onto the internet. So we know a great deal about civilians - how they're dying, where they're dying, when they're dying. And it's become much more difficult for militaries to ignore that information now.

SOPHIE MCNEILL: For many years, the United States was criticised for secrecy surrounding alleged civilian casualty incidents. But now, there's been a significant shift towards transparency.

CHRIS WOODS: We provide them dates, locations, GPS coordinates as best we understand them... The Americans will then come back and they'll say, "Ah, no, we categorically weren't involved in this. We didn't bomb in this location." They might come back and say, "Yeah, we've already got an assessment under way", or they'll say, "We're now going to trigger an assesment or an investigation because of your information." We have a similar relationship with the British - very much we're engaged with the UK on a case-by-case basis.

SOPHIE MCNEILL: Airwars believes over 2,500 civilians have been killed in coalition air strikes in Iraq and in Syria. So far, the Americans are the only coalition member to admit that they have accidentally killed civilians, conceding they have unintentionally caused more than 220 deaths. The US says many more alleged civilian deaths are still under investigation.

CHRIS WOODS: The contrast with Australia couldn't be starker. With Australia, we get nothing.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: We reached Mosul, which was our target area, in the early hours of the morning, a few hours before dawn.

SOPHIE MCNEILL: The Australian Defence Force maintains it takes every precaution to avoid civilian casualties.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: Then we conducted a sweep with our targeting cameras to make sure that the area was clear of civilians before employing our weapons.

CHRIS WOODS: It is absolutely fair to say that the coalition and the individual allies are taking probably unprecedented care in a hot war to limit civilian deaths. But this idea that Australian bombs do not kill or injure civilians is a fantasy.

SOPHIE MCNEILL: Airwars says it ranks Australia as one of the least-transparent coalition members.

CHRIS WOODS: Other coalition partners tell us every week, sometimes even daily, where they bomb, when they bomb, what they target. We're incapable of engaging with Australia because they won't tell us where they bomb, they won't tell us when they bomb, and they won't tell us what they bomb. And that's been going on for 30 months.

BEN EMMERSON: Airwars is THE most reliable independent NGO globally in monitoring civilian casualties arising out of armed conflict. They are the organisation which inevitably one turns to for the best picture, because they're very accurate in qualifying the reports that they give.

KELLIE TRANTER, LAWYER: It's about accountability. It's about hearts and minds.

SOPHIE MCNEILL: Newcastle lawyer and human rights advocate Kellie Tranter decided to dig deeper into the outcome of Australian air strikes. She lodged a Freedom of Information request to Defence, and the response was surprising.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: (Reads statement) "The Department does not specifically collect authorative, and therefore accurate, data on enemy and/or civilian casualties in either Iraq or Syria, and certainly does not track such statistics.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 3: One moment. First contact.

KELLIE TRANTER: I was, to put it mildly, in shock. How do we refute allegations that we've killed civilians if we're not tracking and holding that information?

CHRIS WOODS: Of the couple of militaries I've discussed this with informally, let's just say they've expressed surprise at the Australian position. Other nations are absolutely clear that it is their obligation to track and assess civilians they may have killed. Nobody else is going to do this for them. It's their job.

SOPHIE MCNEILL: The ADF says the Americans collect all data relating to casualties, and any information needs to be sought directly from them. But when 7.30 spoke with US Central Command, they told us they do not speak for their coalition partners, and that each country is responsible for tracking their own data.

The ADF declined 7.30's request for an interview. They said all ADF personnel are required to immediately report suspected instances of civilian casualties, and that all reports are investigated. They said they would not provide mission-specific details on individual engagements for operational security reasons. And the ADF refused to say if any civilian casualty incidents are currently being investigated.

BEN EMMERSON: A blanket refusal to release data on civilian casualties, regardless of the circumstances, and regardless of any operational risk that there may or may not be, would not be consistent with any view of a state's responsibilities in international war.

SOPHIE MCNEILL: The fight to retake Western Mosul is now under way, and the coalition has dramatically increased the number of air strikes in recent weeks as the battle against this ruthless terrorist group continues. The US is leading the way for transparency in its military operations. The question now is why Australia is not holding itself to the same standards.

CHRIS WOODS: After so many strikes by Australia now, it's impossible, in our view, that civilians will not have been harmed. They will have been accidental, we accept that. But we need to understand when those civilians were killed, how they died, if we're going to improve the chances of civilians in future Australian air strikes. If all we get is denial, how can we make things better? How can we improve on things?