Watching Innocent Iraqis Die
The next time CNN’s Wolf Blitzer boasts about George W. Bush’s “successful surge” in Iraq or Newsweek hails “Victory at Last,” you should think of the video released by Wikileaks.org this week showing the killing of a group of Iraqi men, including two Reuters newsmen, as they walked nonchalantly through the streets of Baghdad.
Not only did a U.S. military helicopter gunship mow them down amid macho jokes and chuckling – after mistaking a couple of cameras for weapons – but the American attackers then blew away several Iraqis who arrived in a van and tried to take one of the wounded newsmen to a hospital. Two children in the van were badly wounded.
“Well, it’s their fault for bringing their kids into a battle,” one American remarked.
The videotaped incident – entitled “Collateral Murder” by Wikileaks – occurred on July 12, 2007, in the midst of President Bush’s much-heralded troop “surge,” which the U.S. news media has widely credited for reducing violence in Iraq and bringing something close to victory for the United States.
But the U.S. press corps rarely mentions that the “surge” represented one of the bloodiest periods of the war. Beyond the horrific – and untallied – death toll of Iraqis, more than 1,000 U.S. soldiers died during Bush’s “surge” of an additional 30,000 troops into Iraq.
It’s also unclear that the “surge” deserves much if any credit for the gradual decline in Iraqi violence, which had already reached turning points in 2006 with the death of al-Qaeda leader Musab al-Zarqawi and the U.S.-funded Sunni Awakening against al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Furthermore, what Bush had already done – both by invading Iraq in 2003 in violation of international law and then permitting loose rules of engagement – had inflicted unspeakable horrors on the people of Iraq.
Bush turned some U.S. soldiers into wanton murderers who had wide latitude to kill Iraqi “military-age males” or MAMS. Yet, it remains out of bounds for the U.S. mainstream news media to deal honestly with these painful issues or to suggest that Bush should be held accountable as a war criminal.
There was a reason why the Nuremberg Tribunal after World War II declared that “to initiate a war of aggression … is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.” The Wikileaks video represents one piece of that “accumulated evil” that Bush unpacked.
The mowing down of Reuters newsmen Saeed Chmagh and Namir Noor-Eldeen and about 10 others also was not an unusual event, according to veterans of the Iraq War. Indeed, much of Iraq – like Afghanistan – has been treated as a near-free-fire zone with open season on suspicious-looking MAMS, though these killings rarely attract much media attention.
And, in the few cases that do reach the public, the U.S. soldiers are usually deemed to have operated within the rules of engagement, as happened in the July 12, 2007, case shown from cockpit video obtained by Wikileaks.
One exception to the rule of near impunity was the 10-year sentence meted out to Army Ranger Sgt. Evan Vela for executing an unarmed Iraqi detainee who – along with his son – had stumbled into a U.S. sniper position in 2007, also during Bush's “surge.”
After letting the 17-year-old son go, Vela’s squad leader, Staff Sgt. Michael Hensley ordered Vela to use a 9-millimeter pistol to shoot the father, Genei Nesir Khudair al-Janabi, in the head, an order that Vela carried out.
But Vela’s guilty verdict from a military court was a rare case of holding a U.S. soldier accountable in the killing or abusing of an Iraqi.
More typically, in November 2007, another military jury acquitted Hensley in the same murder of Janabi as well as in the killing of two other Iraqi men south of Baghdad. That jury ruled that Hensley was following the approved "rules of engagement," though it did convict him of planting an AK-47 on one victim.
In another incident near the town of Iskandariya, Iraq, on April 27, 2007, Army sniper Jorge G. Sandoval Jr. received an order from Sgt. Hensley to kill a man cutting grass with a rusty scythe because he was suspected of being an insurgent posing as a farmer.
Like Hensley, Sandoval was acquitted because the military jury accepted defense arguments that the killing was within the rules of engagement. (Sandoval was convicted of a lesser charge of planting a coil of copper wire on a slain Iraqi, and was sentenced to five months in prison.)
The Sandoval case revealed a classified program in which the Pentagon’s Asymmetric Warfare Group encouraged U.S. military snipers in Iraq to drop “bait” – such as electrical cords and ammunition – and then shoot Iraqis who pick up the items. [Washington Post, Sept. 24, 2007]
For his part, Sgt. Hensley complained that he should not have faced a court martial because he was following guidance from two superior officers who wanted him to boost the unit’s kill count.
“We were praised when bad guys died,” Hensley said. “We were upbraided when bad guys did not die.” [NYT, Nov. 9, 2007]
The Pattern of Death
After Vela’s conviction, some of his comrades complained that it was unfair to single any of them out for punishment because these killings were so common in Iraq. Vela’s former platoon commander, Sgt. First Class Steven Kipling, said that if all U.S. combat soldiers were subjected to the same scrutiny applied to Vela, “we would have thousands” of cases. [NYT, Feb. 11, 2008]
Indeed, the evidence does suggest that the handful of homicide cases from Iraq and Afghanistan that reached military trials represent only a tiny fraction of the unprovoked killings of locals at the hands of U.S. soldiers.
U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan also involved heavily armed mercenaries, such as the Blackwater “security contractors” who operated virtually outside the law and were accused by Iraqi authorities of killing 17 Iraqi civilians in a shooting incident on Sept. 16, 2007, another bloody moment in Bush’s “surge.”
Though the trigger-happy Blackwater “security contractors” came in for substantial criticism, they were certainly not alone in employing indiscriminate firepower, as the Wikileaks video showed.
In another case, the U.S. military acknowledged that on Oct. 23, 2007, an American helicopter killed a group of Iraqis, including women and children, after someone allegedly shot at the helicopter as it flew over the village of Mukaisheefa, north of Baghdad.
Iraqi police and witnesses said 16 people died, apparently as some rushed to help a wounded man, the New York Times reported. The helicopter gunners presumed the wounded man to be an insurgent and thus opened fire on the locals who came to his aid, according to witnesses.
“The locals went to check if he was dead and gathered around him,” said Mohanad Hamid Muhsin, a 14-year-old who was shot in the leg. “But the helicopter opened fire again and killed some of the locals and wounded others.”
When Iraqis carried the wounded into houses to administer first aid, the helicopter fired on the houses, killing and wounding more people, said Muhsin, who added that the dead included two of his brothers and a sister. A local police official said the 16 dead included six women and three children, while 14 other Iraqis were wounded. [NYT, Oct. 24, 2007]
That incident paralleled the July 12, 2007, attack that killed the two Reuters newsmen. First, U.S. helicopters crews opened fire on Iraqi MAMS who may have simply been going about their daily business and then – when people nearby rushed to the aid of the wounded – they were killed, too.
Terror Can Work
The indiscriminate use of military force has been cited by many analysts as a factor in the anti-Americanism that has fueled the Iraqi insurgency, but terror also has its advantages. As tyrants have learned throughout history, at some point violent repression does work.
With the total Iraqi death toll estimated in the hundreds of thousands and many more Iraqis horribly maimed, the society has been deeply traumatized.
The kind of U.S. firepower on display in the Wikileaks video – after having been concentrated on alleged Iraqi insurgents and civilian bystanders for more than five years – might well have slaughtered enough Iraqis to convince others to look to their own survival.
Yet, today’s conventional wisdom in Washington is celebratory. The “surge” is hailed as Bush’s finest hour as he showed the steely resolve needed to pull victory out of the jaws of defeat. After all, most of the U.S. news media stars supported the Iraq invasion (although some were critical of how the occupation was carried out).
So, it is now time to bask in the glow of a reassessment of Bush’s great success. When Iraq War opponent Michael Moore was recently on CNN’s “Situation Room,” host Wolf Blitzer chided Moore over his past criticism of Bush and made Moore respond to Newsweek’s “Victory at Last” cover.
In looking back on the years of Iraqi carnage – which incidentally is on the rise again – the U.S. media/political elites may want to refrain from too much high-fiving. They might be advised to watch the video and see for themselves some of the evils that Bush’s aggressive war wrought.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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