elaborate vetting and the approval of senior leaders.

quickly hit targets — including no-strike sites — that would have otherwise been off limits.

Rushed strikes on sites like schools, mosques and markets killed crowds of women and children, according to former service members, military documents obtained by The Times and reporting at sites of coalition airstrikes in Syria.

Perhaps no single incident shows the brazen use of self-defense rules and the potentially devastating costs more than the strike on the Tabqa Dam.

At the start of the war, the United States saw the dam as a key to victory. The Soviet-designed structure of earth and concrete stood 30 miles upstream from the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed capital, Raqqa, and whoever controlled the dam effectively controlled the city.

Rebel groups captured the dam in 2013, and the Islamic State took control during its violent expansion in 2014. For the next several years, the militants kept a small garrison in the dam’s towers, where the thick concrete walls and sweeping view created a ready-made fortress.

a United Nations report from January 2017, which stated that if attacks on the dam caused it to fail, communities for more than 100 miles downstream would be flooded.

The military report was completed several weeks before the strike and sent to the task force, one former official said. But in the final week of March 2017, a team of task force operators on the ground decided to strike the dam anyway, using some of the biggest conventional bombs available.

military report obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit shows the operators contacted a B-52 bomber circling high overhead and requested an immediate airstrike on three targets. But the report makes no mention of enemy forces firing or heavy casualties. Instead, it says the operators requested the strikes for “terrain denial.”

The two former officials said the terrain denial request suggested that allied forces were not in danger of being overrun by enemy fighters, and that the task force’s goal was likely to preemptively destroy fighting positions in the towers.

heavy artillery.

Days later, Islamic State fighters fled, sabotaging the dam’s already inoperable turbines as they retreated, according to engineers.

Satellite imagery from after the attack shows gaping holes in the roofs of both towers, a crater in the concrete of the dam next to the head-gates, and a fire in one of the power station buildings. Less obvious, but more serious, was the damage inside.

light weapons, so as not to cause damage.”

A short time later, General Townsend denied the dam was a target and said, “When strikes occur on military targets, at or near the dam, we use noncratering munitions to avoid unnecessary damage to the facility.”

reported widely in Syrian media sources online, but because the reports got the location of the attack wrong, the U.S. military searched for strikes near the dam and determined the allegation was “noncredible.” The civilian deaths have never been officially acknowledged.

The United States continued to strike targets and its allies soon took control of the region.

John Ismay contributed reporting.

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