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U.S. vows to 'back off' if fighters use Afghan civilians as cover

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  • NEW: Forces won't disengage at hint of civilian presence, general's aide cautions
  • Commanding general says there's renewed emphasis to avoid civilian casualties
  • U.S.: Fighting last week in Kandahar province left 37 civilians dead
  • Afghan officials: Civilians were killed in a U.S. airstrike
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COMBAT OUTPOST MALAKASHY, Afghanistan (CNN) -- U.S. forces in Afghanistan will "back off" from firing at insurgents if the fighters are using civilian buildings as cover, the U.S. commander in eastern Afghanistan told CNN.

Afghan men work on a house destroyed in an alleged airstrike last week in Kandahar province.

"I've given direct guidance, and so has my boss to me, that if there's any doubt at all that the enemy is firing from a house or building where there might be women and children, that we'll just back off," Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Schloesser, the commanding general of the 101st Airborne Division, told CNN.

"That potentially is something that we did not do before, but now because of this increased emphasis, we are doing," he said in an interview at an outpost in Afghanistan's Paktika province near the Pakistani border.

Later, Schloesser's spokeswoman Lt. Col. Rumi Nielson-Green said that U.S. and NATO's International Security Assistance Force troops would not retreat or "cease operations merely at the possibility of non-combatant presence during an engagement."

A September directive from the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, emphasizes "taking a balanced approach during counter-insurgency operations and using reasonable responses and actions as well as judicious use of force," Nielson-Green said.

Schloesser spoke the same day the U.S. military announced that fighting last week in Kandahar province left 37 civilians dead and 35 wounded. During the two-day battle in Kandahar's Shah Wali Kott district, insurgents fired from some villagers' houses, using them as cover, villagers told the U.S. military.

Afghan officials said the civilian deaths in Kandahar were the result of a U.S. airstrike. But a joint U.S.-Afghan investigation concluded that the civilians died during a battle that was sparked when insurgents ambushed an Afghan-coalition patrol.

The U.S. military released the results of that joint investigation Saturday.

Schloesser said that avoiding civilian casualties has always been a priority of the U.S. military, even before Afghan President Hamid Karzai said last week that his "first and main demand" of the next U.S. administration under President-elect Barack Obama will be "to stop civilian casualties" in his country.

"We've gotten new guidance that we had before the president talked, or expressed his greetings to President-elect Obama," Schloesser said. "So it's not that that's new, it's just that we're trying with renewed emphasis to avoid any kind of thing like that."

The U.S. military also is investigating reports that as many as 30 civilians were killed in an airstrike on Thursday in Badghis province in northwest Afghanistan.

The reported casualties come as the U.S. and NATO forces are waging a bloody battle against a resurgent Taliban across Afghanistan. A classified review of U.S. policy in Afghanistan is likely to judge that the United States is losing ground there, according to a government official involved with preparing the review.

The review, under way since September 20, has yet to reach any definitive conclusions. But according to one of the participants, there was no disagreement among the 24 government agencies that participated that Afghanistan is in a "dire situation."

The review is led by Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, the senior National Security Council official responsible for Afghanistan and Iraq.

The issue of civilian casualties has rankled relations between the United States and Afghanistan. After a U.S. airstrike in August that killed dozens of civilians in the western province of Herat, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates traveled to Kabul to apologize to Karzai.

Afghan and U.N. officials said the August 22 airstrike killed 90 civilians.

The U.S. military initially denied such a large number of civilians were killed. But when cell phone pictures later were provided to the U.S. military showing dozens of bodies at the scene of the strike, McKiernan asked U.S. Central Command to review the initial investigation.

That investigation concluded that 33 civilians were killed.

Still, "enemy beheadings, public executions, beatings, stoning of civilians kill vastly more than the numbers killed accidentally by friendly forces," Schloesser's spokeswoman said.

All About Afghanistan WarHamid KarzaiBarack ObamaThe Taliban

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