WikiLeaks Video: Journalists Killed in US Attack, Military Rationale Dubious

WikiLeaks is a non-profit website that serves the world community by publishing classified media concerning human rights violations and abuses of government power. By remaining largely anonymous and protecting the sources of its information, WikiLeaks bypasses censorship in its many forms, and provides a valuable service that mainstream media organizations simply cannot accomplish. In perhaps their most memorable posting to date, last year the website listed 570,000 hacked pager intercepts from a 24-hour period encompassing the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The hours I spent reading intercepts from that day made the experience more vivid than all of the media coverage surrounding the event that I’ve seen over the last eight and a half years. Yesterday, WikiLeaks released another string of heart-wrenching media, but in this footage, it is the “enemy” that garners sympathy.

On July 12, 2007, two Apache AH-64 helicopter gunships along with 240 soldiers in Humvees supported by Bradley Fighting Vehicles made their way into the Al-Amin neighborhood of Baghdad. Responding to reports of small arms fire directed at coalition troops, a contingent of the force including both Apache helicopters descended on the epicenter of activity in east Al-Amin. With Bradleys and Humvees strong pointing perpendicular streets adjacent to several open blocks, the helicopters scanned rooftops and avenues for signs of any insurgent activity in between their positions. Here is where the WikiLeaks video footage begins.

The black and white video feed is recorded from the gun sight of the lead Apache. At about 1 minute 30 seconds into the uncut video posted above, one of the Apache crew notices a large group of men casually walking down a broad street. At around 1:45, weapons are identified in the crowd. As the reticle of the Apache’s 30mm cannon hovers on the head of one man who carries something slung over his shoulder, “Fucking prick” is clearly audible in the cockpit. At 2:06, additional weapons are sighted in the group of young men. By 2:12, the lead Apache requests permission to engage, citing five to six individuals with AK-47s. They are immediately granted permission, but must wait to circle around the buildings inhibiting their clear shot. While circling, an RPG is seen (2:33) by the Apache gunner held by a man peaking around a corner of the building that is obscuring their shot. At 2:44, the crew radios that the man hiding behind the corner is now shooting. By 3:10 the lead Apache clears the building, and the crowd returns to view. Some look upwards at the Apache, others talk amongst themselves. No one runs or seems at all concerned by the presence of the gunships. At 3:13, “Light ’em all up” crackles over the radio. By 3:15 the Apache’s 30mm cannon opens fire on the crowd, instantly killing several. Over the next minute, pilots from both Apaches engage the few surviving members of the crowd who managed to run across the street. At 4:55, the crew begins to congratulate one another on their fine shooting. At around 6:00, one wounded man drags himself to the side of the street, and by 6:15 is steadily in the crosshairs once again. “Maybe he has a weapon down in his hand,” suggests the pilot at 6:25. “No, I haven’t seen one yet,” is the response. The choppers continue to circle waiting for ground troops to arrive. At 7:00 another voice is heard in reference to the wounded man, “All you gotta do is pick up a weapon.”

At 7:30, a van comes into view driving towards the wounded man. The pilot radios to his superior that “we have individuals going to the scene, looks like possibly uh picking up bodies and weapons.” The video depicts two men who emerge from the van and begin carrying the wounded individual between them towards the sliding door of the vehicle. The lead Apache asks permission to engage the van, which is granted by 8:30. By 8:37, both Apaches open fire with their 30mm cannons. The two men bringing the body to the van flee, but are killed almost immediately by additional fire. The van is blown across the street from the force of the attack. The secondary Apache continues firing until 9:30.

At 14:00, the first Bradley arrives on scene, shortly followed by dismounted soldiers. At 17:20, ground personnel report eleven Iraqi KIA and one small child wounded. The lead pilot responds, “Roger. Ah damn. Oh well.” Then at 18:08, “Well it’s their fault for bringing their kids into a battle.” “That’s right,” another Apache crew member affirms. At 18:50, a Humvee drives over a body. There is brief exchange over the radio complemented by desensitized chuckles. One crew member says, “Well, they’re dead so-”

The remaining 20 minutes of video footage detail troop movements on the ground and at 23:11, a soldier carrying away the wounded girl. Another wounded child is found in the van under the body of his dead father. Off video, an RPG launcher and several AK-47s are found nearby and photographed.

The detailed account above takes everything the Apache crew members say at face value. The reality of the situation, however, was somewhat different. The weapon first identified at 1:45 is no firearm at all, it is a camera and lens case carried by Namir Noor-Eldeen, a 22-year-old photographer for Reuters. Behind him and to the left is a 40-year-old Reuters driver, Saeed Chmagh. Chmagh is also carrying camera equipment in a pouch slung over his shoulder. The “fucking prick” whose head is centered in the helicopter’s reticle is Noor-Eldeen.

The weapons spotted at 2:06 appear to be the only actual insurgent weapons in the entire footage. I’m no expert, but I make out one AK-47 and one Soviet style RPG. Noor-Eldeen and Chmagh walk away from the armed men, and are obscured by the building. Despite the overhead Apaches, the armed men then casually walk up to join them.

As the helicopters circle to get a better line of fire, Noor-Eldeen peaks his head around the corner of the building revealing himself to the lead gunship. He is snapping a photo of a Humvee at the end of the street with his telephoto lens, as it appears was suggested to him by a member of the crowd only moments before. Noor-Eldeen’s lens is the “RPG” in frame when mentioned at 2:33. The “shooting” at 2:44 is the reflection of light on the lens. As the Apache gets a clear shot, Noor-Eldeen shoulders his camera and begins to walk away. Chmagh talks on his cellphone to Ahmad Sahib, a photographer for Agence France-Presse.

As the firing commences, the gun sight pans to target a fleeing Noor-Eldeen, who is shot repeatedly after falling to the ground. The wounded man crawling to the curb at 6:00 is Chmagh. The van that approaches him at 7:30 is driven by Saleh Matasher Tomal, a 44-year-old father of four who earns a living by renting out his vehicle as a taxi. It appears as though he is acting more as a good Samaritan than as a man hiding weapons or abetting an insurgent. Tomal’s two children, Sayad (10) and Doaha (5), are visible in the passenger’s window of the van. They both survive their chest wounds caused by the fragmentation of the 30mm shells.

Later that day, the military stated that during a firefight, from which coalition forces were receiving rifle and RPG fire, Apache helicopters were called in as reinforcements. The ensuing battle claimed the lives of nine insurgents and two civilians. The most comprehensive meta-analysis of civilian deaths in Iraq counts this incident as ten civilian deaths, including the reporters.

From the video footage, it is clear that not everyone in the crowd is armed. Furthermore, those that are do not appear to have hostile intent. Their proximity to reports of recent rifle and RPG fire makes it not unlikely that these two men were involved in fighting coalition forces. Given the classified rules of engagement for 2007 also posted by WikiLeaks, being armed with an RPG does seem sufficiently hostile to allow lethal force, regardless of the disposition of its owner. Shooting a crowd of unarmed people to hit one or two that possess weapons, however, is absurd, especially when the weapons aren’t being used. Additionally, opening fire on unarmed civilians arriving to aid another wounded and unarmed (what turned out to be) civilian is shocking. I can’t find authorization for that anywhere in the rules of engagement.

Ultimately, this is war, and war is hell. Civilian deaths happen constantly in armed conflict, and this one is no exception. By conservative estimates, with each instance backed by documentation and verified by multiple sources, at least 95,000 civilians have died so far in the Iraq war and the ensuing insurgency (as a result of military action from all sides). The issue in this particular case is accountability. Following the events of July 12th 2007, the military said that the pilots acted in accordance with the rules of engagement and that the death of the Reuters’ staff was due to their own close proximity to armed militants engaging in combat with coalition forces. Well, I’ve read the rules of engagement, and I’ve seen the video, and all of that, frankly, is very hard to believe. Not only that, but where did the military learn to count? Nine insurgents and two civilians? What if those two weren’t Reuters’ staff, would the count be 11 insurgents and no civilians? Personally, I counted 2 possible insurgents and somewhere between 11 and 13 civilians killed (not to forget the two children and one bystander badly wounded). This throws into question the many times a discrepancy existed between military casualty reports and those of local aid groups, hospital workers, and firsthand witnesses. The military also appeared to stonewall Reuters’ investigation into the matter, and denied by omission their access to the Apache video and audio feeds despite official requests through the Freedom of Information Act.

So, WikiLeaks, you have done the world a morbid but necessary service. As a country, we cannot be both barbaric and liberating. War is always horrible, both for the victors and the defeated. Let’s stop pretending otherwise. When we are forced into war, however, let there be a true accounting of our deeds. Ours should be a history unmarred by national guilt.

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~ by Wil Finley on April 6, 2010.

4 Responses to “WikiLeaks Video: Journalists Killed in US Attack, Military Rationale Dubious”

  1. I watched the video several days ago. In my opinion, this is the definition of gray area, and a great example of why this war is hard for the US to fight & “win”.

    Regardless, pointing an unidentified black cylindrical object at a military vehicle while crouched behind the corner of a wall is a very, very, bad idea.

    • It seems that the beginning of the video falls somewhere in the darker shading of gray, as a small number of weapons are visible in the crowd. The latter half of the video, specifically involving the van, I find much more disconcerting.

      • Agreed. The van part bothered me. Especially when they had the crosshairs right on that poor guy as he was crawling. You could hear the eagerness in their voices. Unsettling.

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