The US Apache helicopters involved in a 2007 attack in Baghdad that killed two Reuters employees acted in accordance with both the laws of war and the Army’s rules for engagement with the enemy, according to an internal US military investigation.
On Monday, the website WikiLeaks.org released a graphic gun-camera video of the attack, in which about a dozen people died, including two Iraqi journalists employed by Reuters. In response, the US Central Command released a heavily redacted, unclassified version of its own probe into the incident.
Crazyhorse 18 and 19, the helicopters in question, were on a directed mission in support of ground forces that had been taking constant fire from insurgents, according to the report. They identified “with reasonable certainty” the presence of military-age males with weapons at a location within 300 feet of the site where US forces were being attacked.
Photos included with the report show the presence of both a rocket-propelled grenade and an AK-47 automatic rifle among group members, according to the report.
“While observing this group of individuals, the [helicopters] satisfied all requirements to initiate the engagement,” according to the investigation.
In other words, they contacted ground commanders and received permission to fire.
Then the aircrews saw action that they felt established hostile intent by the group. They said they saw what they believed to be armed insurgents peering around the corner of a home to “monitor the movement or activities of friendly forces.”
“At this point, [an] individual was in a crouched, firing position with his weapon pointed towards friendly troops,” according to the Central Command investigation.
However, the item that appeared to be a weapon may have been the long lens of a camera.
Then the Apaches commenced the actual attack, “eliminating the immediate threat to friendly ground forces” from what they thought were approximately eight young males.
The aircrews “exercised sound judgment ... during attempts to acquire insurgents,” according to the report.
Yet the US quickly discovered that the incident was more complex than it had seemed from the air. Ground forces arrived on the scene and recovered camera equipment and media cards.
They also discovered that the Apaches had injured two children who were riding in a van that arrived to pick up the wounded following the first wave of firing.
Reuters editor in chief David Schlesinger said the video released Monday by WikiLeaks "is graphic evidence of the dangers involved in war journalism and the tragedies that can result."
According to WikiLeaks, the video shows a group walking through a courtyard, not engaged in hostile activity. The group did nothing to call fire down upon itself, and the US military has tried to excuse that fact, WikiLeaks says.
The Apaches mistook cameras for guns, the organization says. But it is possible that some men in the group were carrying weapons as well, says WikiLeaks.
The Central Command investigation was carried out by Army Maj. Gen. Vincent Brooks, who was then deputy commander of coalition forces in Baghdad. Personnel from both the 1st Air Cavalry Brigade and 2nd Brigade Combat Team took part in the study, according to the recently released report documents.