A video released on the Internet Monday by WikiLeaks, a small nonprofit dedicated to publishing classified information from the US and other governments, appears to show the killing of two Iraqi journalists with Reuters and about nine other Iraqis in a Baghdad suburb in 2007 that is sharply at odds of the official US account of the incident.
WikiLeaks said the video was from the camera gun of one of two Apache attack helicopters that participated in the incident. The group said the video, with an audio feed between the helicopter's crew and other US forces, was provided by "military whistleblowers" but didn't elaborate further.
"WikiLeaks goes to great lengths to verify the authenticity of the information it receives," wrote the group, which has a yearly budget of about $600,000 and is funded by human rights campaigners, investigative journalists, technologists and the general public, according to its website. "We have analyzed the information about this incident from a variety of source material. We have spoken to witnesses and journalists directly involved in the incident."
The group, which does not list the names of anyone involved with the project, didn't elaborate further on its sources. Reuters did not confirm if its two employees are among the dead show in the video, saying it needs to investigate further.
"The deaths of Namir Noor-Eldeen and Saeed Chmagh three years ago were tragic and emblematic of the extreme dangers that exist in covering war zones," said David Schlesinger, editor-in-chief of Reuters news, in a short statement. “The video released today via Wikileaks is graphic evidence of the dangers involved in war journalism and the tragedies that can result.
I spent more than four years reporting from Baghdad for the Monitor, including a number of tours embedded with US forces, during the war. While not an expert video analyst, I would say the video looks much like the neighborhood where the incident took place and – together with other details – make it likely the footage is authentic.
US account at the time
Reuters photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen and driver Saeed Chmagh were among the dead after US helicopters opened fire on a small group of Iraqi men in Baghdad Jadida ("New Baghdad") in the eastern part of the capital city on July 12, 2007. The Reuters journalists had gone to the area after they'd been tipped of that US forces had carried out a raid there earlier in the day.
The first US account of the incident said that the men were armed insurgents. That was later officially revised to say that the helicopters opened fire after being attacked from the ground. Since, Reuters has filed Freedom of Information Act requests for the footage of the incident, to no avail.
''There is no question that coalition forces were clearly engaged in combat operations against a hostile force,'' Lt. Col. Scott Bleichwehl, a military spokesman in Baghdad, told the New York Times on the day of the incident.
Rundown of key events depicted in video
The video released today shows something quite different. A group of about 15-20 Iraqi men on a dusty street, chatting and walking along, apparently unaware of the helicopters watching them – or, at least, unconcerned. One of the Americans in the helicopter says "that's a weapon" while his cross-hairs focuses on a man WikiLeaks identifies as Mr. Noor-Eldeen, who has what appears to be a professional camera slung over his right shoulder.
Some of the other men in the group are carrying what could be assault rifles. After the helicopter circles the block, it comes on the same group again, who appear to be sharing cigarettes and chatting in front of a house in a tight cluster of about 11, with at least one man on his cell phone. A voice on one of the helicopters asks for permission to engage and also says he sees a man with an RPG, which cannot be confirmed by watching the video.
Permission is given, a voice says "light them all up," and the helicopter opens up on the group with its machine gun – apparently killing all but two of the men. One unarmed man who escaped the first salvo and ran across the street into an empty lot is also tracked and killed.
WikiLeaks identified the second unarmed survivor as Mr. Chmagh, who runs along a row of houses until he too, is shot, and lies writhing on the ground – apparently unable to get up. The helicopter keeps its cross-hairs on the injured man while one of the US soldiers jokingly pleads over his radio "all you have to do is pickup up a weapon" – which would have allowed him to finish the man off under US rules of engagement at the time. There is no weapon visible.
Shortly thereafter, a minivan pulls up alongside the injured Iraqi. From aboard the US helicopter, a soldier asks, "Can I shoot?" and is then heard requesting "permission to engage?" At that point, another voice – presumably an officer not on scene – asks if the van is "picking up the wounded" and is told that they are. Two Iraqis from the van carry the wounded man around the side of the van to load him inside.
An American voice with the call sign "Bushmaster 7" says, "Roger, engage." One of the helicopters blankets the van with machine-gun fire. The two Iraqis who were loading the wounded man inside scattered, but are quickly cut down as they try to flee.
"Oh yeah, right through the windshield," says one of the soldiers, while another voice on board briefly laughs. "There were approximately four to five individuals in that truck, so I'm counting about 12-15" casualties."
As far as can be seen from the video, there were no weapons carried by the men who came out of the van or in the vicinity of the van when the helicopter opened fire.
(The video, which is extremely graphic and contains uncensored language, can be seen here.)