AN Iraqi family gunned down after approaching a US patrol too fast. Dozens of men shot execution-style by sectarian death squads.
Brutal killings of civilians have come to define the Iraq war. New details found in government documents released by WikiLeaks, however, raise troubling questions about how much the US military knew during the months it sought to downplay reports of the slaughter.
The documents include reports from soldiers on the ground about day-to-day violence and individual attacks – including shootings, roadside bombings, and the execution-style killings and targeted assassinations that left bodies in the streets of Baghdad at the height of sectarian violence that pushed the country to the brink of civil war.
What surprised many observers was the level of detail that American troops gathered, often including names of victims, times of day of the attacks and the neighbourhoods where they occurred.
That contradicted years of statements by American officials, who have repeatedly resisted providing information about civilian casualties. The US military often told journalists in Baghdad it did not keep detailed records of civilian deaths or have information on particular attacks. In 2006 and 2007, the Bush administration and military commanders repeatedly denied Iraq was sliding into civil war and often played down the extent of civilian carnage, much of which had no direct effect on US forces.
The reports also point to a higher death toll than previously believed.
Iraq Body Count, a private British-based group that has tracked the number of Iraqi civilians killed since the war started in March 2003, said it had analysed the information and found 15,000 previously unreported deaths. That would raise its total from as many as 107,369 civilians to more than 122,000 civilians.
Rights groups criticized Washington for not releasing the information, insisting that casualty information did not pose a national security risk.
“The American public has a right to know the full human cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Jameel Jaffer of the American Civil Liberties Union said in an email. “A lot of this information should have been released to the public a long time ago.”
The US military has maintained careful records of the number of American service members who have died in Iraq – 4,425 as of Saturday.
But civilian casualty figures in the US-led war in Iraq have been hotly disputed because of the political stakes in a conflict opposed by many countries and a large portion of the American public. Critics on each side of the divide accuse the other of manipulating the death toll to sway opinion. Independent confirmation of deaths in any particular attack was hard to obtain, since journalists and watchdog groups were often unable to go to the sites of many attacks due to the volatile security situation that prevailed for much of the war.
The Iraqi government has issued a tally claiming at least 85,694 civilians and security officials killed between January 2004 and October 31, 2008.
In August 2008, the Congressional Research Service said the US military was withholding statistics on Iraqi civilian deaths. The Pentagon did publish in June 2008 a chart on monthly civilian death trends that showed it peaking at between 3,500 and 4,000 in December 2006. But it did not release the data used to create the chart.
In July this year, responding to a Freedom of Information Act request, the US military quietly released its most detailed tally to date – 63,185 civilians and 13,754 Iraqi security forces killed between January 2004 and August 2008.
Musaab Adnan, whose 27-year-old brother was killed in 2006 in the crossfire between US forces and insurgents in the western town of Haditha, said the new WikiLeaks information would remind the world of the war’s brutality.
“It is hard to forget what happened. Those who were lost will never be compensated. But the publication of these documents will show the world the atrocity of these crimes against the Iraqis,” he said.
The war logs were made public in defiance of the Pentagon, which insisted that the release would put the lives of US troops and their military partners at risk.
Although the documents appear to be authentic, their origin could not be independently confirmed, and WikiLeaks declined to offer any details about them. The Pentagon has previously declined to confirm the authenticity of WikiLeaks-released records. But it has put to work more than 100 US analysts to review what was previously released and has never indicated that any past WikiLeaks releases were inaccurate.
Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell insisted the US had done its best to prevent innocent civilians from being killed.
“It has been a driving force for us, a guiding principle for us over the last seven years of this conflict to do everything in our power – perhaps more than any other military in the history of the world has ever done – to minimize civilian casualties,” Mr Morrell said.
The 391,831 documents, which date from the start of 2004 to January 1, 2010, provide a ground-level view of the war written mostly by low-ranking officers in the field.
WikiLeaks offered The Associated Press and other news organisations access to a searchable database of redacted versions of the reports three hours prior to its general release yesterday. A few news organisations, including the New York Times, Le Monde, The Guardian and Der Spiegel, were given access to the material far earlier.