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U.S. Commander Says Punishment For Afghan Raid Unlikely

The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen

The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- The U.S. military is unlikely to discipline troops involved in a deadly air strike in Afghanistan that heightened tensions between Washington and Kabul, the top U.S. military official has said.

Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said U.S. troops handled themselves well during the battle last month against Taliban fighters in Afghanistan's western Farah Province.

A large number of civilians were killed after U.S. forces called in air strikes.

"At least in my review, I found nothing that would lead to any specific action along the lines of what you're asking," Mullen said at a Pentagon briefing when asked it disciplinary action might be considered.

The U.S. and Afghan governments have clashed for weeks over the civilian death toll from the battle.

Afghan officials maintain that the action killed 140 civilians, making it the most deadly military operation for noncombatants in the country since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.

Preliminary U.S. estimates had put the civilian death toll at between 20 and 35 and the number of Taliban fighters killed at 80 to 95. An Afghan watchdog agency has said that 97 civilians died, with no more than two Taliban members killed.

"There are some estimated but...I don't think we ever will really know how many," Mullen told reporters.

One problem identified by Pentagon officials occurred when a B-1 bomber participating in the strike identified a targeted building and later returned to attack without double-checking to make sure Taliban fighters were still there.

"There were command-and-control challenges, chain-of-command challenges, some training issues, that we've got to address," Mullen told reporters.

U.S. commanders in Afghanistan have changed operational procedures to minimize civilian casualties, which U.S. officials fear could turn Afghan popular sentiment against Western troops if mishandled.

The Obama administration has embarked on a massive build-up of U.S. forces in Afghanistan in a bid to quell the growing Taliban insurgency. U.S. troop levels will more than double to 68,000 by the end of 2009.

Mullen and U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said they hoped that training and the leadership of the new top commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, would help address the issue of civilian casualties in the country.

"There are additional changes we're clearly going to have to make," Mullen said without giving specific details.

The Pentagon has said it will issue an unclassified summary of the military's investigative report on the incident.

But the release has dragged for days, and some officials said there had been a danger it would be squelched as a result of a debate within the Obama administration over its contents.

"I expect that the report will be released within the next day or two," said Gates, who appeared alongside Mullen.