Prior to their release, approximately 400,000 documents belonging to the American army and relating to the war in Iraq, obtained by WikiLeaks, have been sent to four newspapers, The New York Times, The Guardian, Der Spiegel and Le Monde, as well as the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, an NGO based in London, which has already analysed and summarised them.
The daily reports from the American army cover six years of war, from 2004 to the end of 2009. They record, in succinct dispatches written after each patrol, and for each incident, the day-to-day nature of the conflict. The war as seen from a Humvee, from the street, a checkpoint, and reported in a pithy, no-holds-barred style by the soldier in question. It is an account of the banality of violence in times of war and military occupation.
As the WikiLeaks informant did not have access to reports from command, special forces, nor the intelligence services, the documents do not contain any spectacular revelations about the main events of the war: nothing on the arrest of the overthrown dictator, Saddam Hussein; nothing on the death of the head of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Jordanian Abou Moussab Al-Zarqaoui; practically nothing on the two battles of Fallujah, bastion of Sunni insurrection. Nothing either on the state of mind of the commanders or their strategic thinking.
They reports do, however, reveal their fears of Iranian involvement in Iraq, with the arrest of Shiite insurgents “trained in Iran”, along with the discovery of hidden weapons.
The report on the “massacre in Haditha”, a village 260 km west of Baghdad, where 24 civilians were killed in 2005, proves the limitations. Dated the day of the tragedy, 19th November, it states in fifteen lines that an American armoured vehicle was blown up by a home-made bomb, made out of a bottle of propane and detonated remotely. The driver of the vehicle was killed. Simultaneously, writes the author, “the patrol was under attack from enemy fire coming from residential buildings, and returned fire.” Following complaints from Iraqi witnesses and survivors from the village, a court-martial hearing took place in August 2007 in the United States.
It thus emerged that, enraged by the death of their friend, the eight marines, who were not under fire, opened fire in all directions. They then burst into neighbouring houses and killed everyone they found, either with assault rifles, or by throwing cluster grenades. 24 people died, including ten women and children killed at close range. The “Haditha massacre” would go down as the worst war crime recorded in the history of the Iraq conflict.
Out of the eight marines, just one, the head of the patrol, would be sentenced. There was no immediate inquiry, because, as the lawyer for Lieutenant-Colonel Jeffrey Chissani, head of the marines, stated: “at that time, there was no procedure for investigating the death of civilians during combat.” That would change as from April 2006, as a result of the feeling generated by the slaughter.
Just previously, on 12th March 2006, near Mahmoudiya, a small town in the southern suburbs of Baghdad, soldiers reported having found in a house “four civilians killed by anti-Iraqi forces (the term used by the American army to describe their enemies). A Shiite man and three Shiite women, the bodies showing injuries inflicted by an AK 47”. An eight-line report concludes that the bodies were taken to the local morgue.
In fact it was a blatant war crime. Thanks to Iraqi witnesses who had the courage to protest, we would learn eight months later, during a Court Martial hearing in the United States, that four soldiers on patrol in the sector had spotted a young girl they liked. As night fell, the soldiers forced their way in, knocking over her father, her mother and 7-year-old sister. Threatened and held in one of the rooms of the house, the three family members could hear the cries of their daughter, Abir, raped in turn by three of the soldiers. After their wrongdoing, the four men killed the entire Al-Janabi family. Steven Dale Green, a 24-year-old Texan soldier, who seems to have encouraged the others, received five life sentences, his two rapist accomplices between 90 and 110 years’ imprisonment, with the chance of parole after seven years. They all belonged to the famous 101st Airborne division.
“The escalation of force”
In almost all the reports, when acknowledging that civilians have been killed or injured, the soldiers claim to have “respected procedures”, notably those relating to “the escalation of force”, in military jargon. Except for a few cases where the head of a unit recommends an inquiry, the reports always include justification which allows the hierarchy, and the army’s lawyers, to consider the action legitimate.
“The escalation of force”, as recorded in nearly 14,000 reports from the WikiLeaks file, consists of first warnings – gestures, lights, or sounds – and then warning shots. Most of the reports give meticulous details of these steps in the use of force, especially when civilians are killed in error. In a report of 14th June 2005 at 15:30, we read the following: “Hurricane post tried to stop a vehicle using hand and arm signals. An Opel continued to drive at speed. Hurricane post fired warning shots. The vehicle accelerated. (…) As the vehicle wasn’t stopping, the cordon fired at the bonnet of the vehicle, which was approximately 100 metres away. As the vehicle did not stop after all these warning shots, the marines fired at the driver. (…) There were a total of 11 civilians in the vehicle. The operation resulted in the death of 7 civilians (including 2 children).”
The account reveals the fear American soldiers had of suicide bombers in cars, and their readiness to open fire. It required the arrival of General David Petraeus in Baghdad, and new orders on opening fire, in 2007, for a reduction in the number of civilian fatalities.
“The family appreciated…”
Nothing proves these reports are accurate, and that warning shots were actually fired. Many Iraqis have recounted, especially during the early years of the American military intervention, having come under fired as they approached a checkpoint or a convoy with no prior warning. The WikiLeaks file records that many drivers did not hear the warning shots. Many partially sighted, deaf and mentally handicapped people have been killed because they did not respond to the warning signals.
Some soldiers do not even bother to record the “escalation of force”, convinced they are in the right. A report from 7th September 2006: “The patrol was on the move and a white station wagon joined the line. The unit considered it to be a hostile act and opened fire with several rounds of 7.62mm. The vehicle caught fire and the patrol was unable to help the occupants. (…) The family of the deceased explained they understood it was not murder.” And the report concludes: “The family appreciated that the soldiers kept watch over the bodies.”
Civilians killed from the sky
The indiscriminate use of lethal force takes on considerable proportions when the shots come from the sky. Helicopters fire off even less warning shots than ground patrols when they think they have spotted a target.
A report of 28th February 2008 at 17:30, written by the head of unit B/3-69, records “an incident”: “Unit B/3-69 went on reconnaissance (…) to investigate six insurgents planting a home-made bomb (they were digging frantically) on Golden road. (…) At 11:15, Carnage 27 (2 Apache AH-64 helicopters) engaged the people planting the bombs and reported killing one insurgent and five others fleeing towards a nearby building. (…) The rapid reaction force identified the casualty as a 13-year-old boy, and learned from civilians that it was six children searching for roots to light a fire. (…) No trace of any home-made bomb was found.” Another tragically banal episode in the war in Iraq.
Paradoxically, whilst General Petraeus’s command and the counter-insurrection strategy had the effect of reducing the number of civilian killed by the American army from 2007 on, the tally worsened for the air force. Anxious to spare American lives, high command restricted patrols on the ground in favour of helicopter missions. 80% of Hellfire missile attacks referred to in the WikiLeaks file happened in the last three years. It was no longer a question of warning shots or “escalation of force”.
In the 14,000 reports on incidents linked to the “escalation of force”, 681 civilians were killed by the American army, six times the number of insurgents (120). 103 other civilians were killed by air attacks. In total, the WikiLeaks file lists 66,081 civilians killed (and another 99,163 injured), the overwhelming majority by bombs or anonymous killings. Many died during the darkest hours of the civil war between Sunnis and Shiites.
During the period covered, the combined reports show that in six years, 183,991 Iraqis were arrested and detained by coalition forces. The release, often prompt, of those who were able to prove their innocence, is not shown in the reports, so it is impossible to establish the exact number that remained prisoners for long periods, mostly without any warrant or legal procedure.
Starting in June 2004, Washington having “transferred” part of Iraqi sovereignty to an “interim government”, the Iraqi police and army gradually took up their posts in the police stations and the country’s nine prisons. After the scandal of the Abu Ghraib prison, which broke in April 2004, the Americans handed control of the prison back to the Iraqis in 2006. Yet it was summer 2010 before they finally closed the two detention centres they had set up at the start of the occupation, namely Camp Bucca, in southern Iraq, and Camp Cropper, close to Baghdad airport.
It is not known how many prisoners passed through these prisons. “At least 100,000”, suggests Amnesty International. In summer 2007, at their highest level of occupancy, the first “camp” held around 27,000 prisoners and the second, 22,000. These figures do not include the tens of thousands of men who were detained and interrogated by the Iraqis or by the “Special” American services, such as the CIA, who had their own cells.
In August 2009, the intelligence service was forced to reveal that the head of station in Baghdad had been transferred in November 2003, following the death of two Iraqis during a brutal interrogation, one of them being General Abed Ahmed Mowhoush. According to American media group McClatchy, “at least five prisoners” died in similar conditions and “no-one knows what happened to dozens of other ‘phantom prisoners’” at the station in Iraq.
Thanks to the material passed to WikiLeaks, we now know that at least 303 complaints for torture or mistreatment have been registered. According to the BIJ, forty or so are for “serious” bodily injury.
Some examples: 6th July 2006, “two prisoners claim that marines beat them and administered electric shocks (possibly with a Taser) (…) A medical examination of the first prisoner revealed marks on his chest and knees consistent with a fall.”
On 1st February 2007, “Lieutenant Colonel X… rushed at prisoner NKS, dodging the guards, and hit him in the face. The prisoner’s nose appeared broken. (…) If, at the time, the soldier considered his action justified (his best friend had been killed several days before, apparently by this prisoner), we take this incident very seriously and we are prepared to deal with it at battalion level.
The most serious cases of brutality perpetrated by the coalition on people who had been arrested do not appear in the WikiLeaks file. There is nothing, for example, on Ali Mansour, taken from his home on 5th May 2008 and found naked, a bullet in the head and a bullet in the chest, eleven days later under a bridge in Baiji, north of Baghdad. The military hearing which took place in September of that year determined that Lieutenant Michael Behenna and Staff Sergeant Hal Warner killed the man, who was due to be released that day, in cold blood, ordering the three soldiers with them to write in their report that Ali Mansour had been actually been released.
Nothing either on the murder of 4 civilians, young Sunnis whose identity was not revealed during the soldiers’ trial in August 2008 in Germany. Arrested at night by a patrol in April 2007, the four young men, explained other soldiers who witnessed the crime, were taken to a canal in south-western Baghdad and executed by three sergeants from the 172nd infantry brigade.
The existence of another “secret prison”, with 431 prisoners, all Sunni, would be revealed on 18th April 2010 by the Los Angeles Times. Almost all the prisoners, suspected of anti-government activism or complicity with jihadist Al-Qaeda insurgents, had been arrested in northern Iraq in autumn 2009 by Iraqi units, then transferred to Baghdad. Many said they had been tortured with beatings, electric shocks and “controlled” asphyxiation with plastic bags over their heads.
How many other cases are there that we do not know about? It is impossible to say. Most of the time, as the WikiLeaks file reveals, when American soldiers are faced with abuses committed by their Iraqi counterparts, they just note it in the report as follows: “Coalition forces not being involved in these accusations, further investigation is not required.”
19th October 2006. An American squad conducts “a routine operation” in an Iraqi police detention centre. They discover a prisoner in a bad way. The man “claims to have been hit on the face and head. He also claims to have received electric shocks on his feet and genitals, and to have been sodomized with a water bottle”. The Americans isolated the prisoner to conduct “further examination”.
A few months earlier, on 26th June, another American patrol discovered, during a “surprise inspection” in a police station, evident “signs of torture”. “Large quantities of blood on the floor of the cell. A cable used to inflict electric shocks and a plastic tube fixed to the wall. (…) The police officers received training on human rights.”
Back on 3rd May 2005, “the number 2 in criminal investigation” in the American police was having a meeting with the liaison officer for his Iraqi counterparts. The American officer heard cries from the floor below. He rushed to the room and found a police sergeant, two investigators and a suspect “in tears”. The latter, suspected of money laundering, accused the investigators of beating him on the souls of his feet so that he could barely stand. The Iraqi sergeant admitted to so doing.
The American officer searched the premises and found two plastic tubes, a rolling pin, “with a cord through the middle and a hand-cranked generator with clamps (taken as evidence)”. The Americans informed the Iraqi sergeant that “his behaviour was unacceptable and criminal. The investigators’ identity cards were confiscated.” The officer went to see the general in charge. “When the details of the matter were presented to him, he brought the meeting to an end and started to do something else.” No known further action.