A huge trove of secret field reports from the battlegrounds of Iraq sheds new light on the war, including such fraught subjects as civilian deaths, detainee abuse and the involvement of Iran.
The secret archive is the second cache obtained by the independent organization WikiLeaks and made available to several news organizations. Like the first release, reports covering six years of the Afghan war, the Iraq documents provide no earthshaking revelations, but they offer insight, texture and context from the people actually fighting the war.
An analysis of the 391,832 documents illuminates important aspects of this war:
• The deaths of Iraqi civilians — at the hands mainly of other Iraqis but also of the U.S. military — appear to be greater than the numbers made public by the United States during the Bush administration.
• While the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by Americans, particularly at the Abu Ghraib prison, shocked the world, the documents paint an even more lurid picture of abuse by America's Iraqi allies — a brutality from which the Americans at times averted their eyes.
• Iran's military, more than has been generally understood, intervened aggressively in support of Shiite combatants, offering weapons, training and sanctuary and in a few instances directly engaging U.S. troops.
The Iraqi documents were made available to the New York Times, the British newspaper the Guardian, the French newspaper Le Monde and the German magazine Der Spiegel on the condition that they be embargoed until now. WikiLeaks has never stated where it obtained the information, although a U.S. Army intelligence analyst, Pfc. Bradley Manning, has been accused of being a source of classified material.
Geoff Morrell, the Defense Department press secretary, strongly condemned both WikiLeaks and the release of the Iraq documents.
"We deplore WikiLeaks for inducing individuals to break the law, leak classified documents and then cavalierly share that secret information with the world, including our enemies," he said.
Iraqi civilians paid heaviest toll
The reports disclosed by WikiLeaks offer an incomplete, yet startlingly graphic, portrait of one of the most contentious issues in the Iraq war — how many Iraqi civilians have been killed and by whom.
The reports make it clear that most civilians, by far, were killed by other Iraqis. Two of the worst days of the war came Aug. 31, 2005, when a stampede on a Baghdad bridge killed more than 950 people, and Aug. 14, 2007, when truck bombs killed more than 500 people near the border with Syria.
But it was systematic sectarian cleansing that drove the killing to its most frenzied point, making December 2006 the war's worst month, according to the reports, with about 3,800 civilians killed. About 1,300 police officers, insurgents and coalition soldiers were also killed in that month.
The documents also reveal many previously unreported instances in which U.S. soldiers killed civilians — at checkpoints, from helicopters, in operations. The archive contains reports on at least four shootings from helicopters. In the worst, on July 16, 2007, as many as 26 Iraqis were killed, about half of them civilians. But the tally was called in by two people, and it is possible that the deaths were counted twice.
In another case, in February 2007, the crew of an Apache helicopter shot and killed two Iraqi men believed to have been firing mortars, even though they made surrendering motions, because, according to a military lawyer cited in the report, "they cannot surrender to aircraft, and are still valid targets."
The shooting was unusual. In at least three other instances reported in the archive, Iraqis surrendered to helicopter crews without being shot.
The Pentagon did not respond to questions from the New York Times about the rules of engagement for the helicopter strike.
The pace of civilian deaths served as a kind of pulse, whose steady beat told of the success, or failure, of America's war effort. Americans on both sides of the debate argued bitterly over facts that grew hazier as the war deepened.
The archive does not put that argument to rest by giving a precise count. In all, the five-year archive lists more than 100,000 dead from 2004 to 2009, although some deaths are reported more than once, and some reports have inconsistent casualty figures. The logs record 66,081 noncombatant deaths.
Iraq Body Count, an organization — not without its critics — that tracked civilian deaths using media reports, did a preliminary analysis of the archive and estimated that it listed about 15,000 deaths that had not been previously disclosed.
Documents show Iran's aid to militias
Scores of the documents provide a ground-level look — at least as seen by American units in the field and U.S. military intelligence — at the shadow war between the United States and Iraqi militias backed by Iran's Revolutionary Guards.
During the administration of President George W. Bush, critics charged that the White House had exaggerated Iran's role to deflect criticism of its handling of the war and build support for a tough policy toward Iran, including the possibility of military action.
But the field reports disclosed by WikiLeaks, which were never intended to be made public, underscore the seriousness with which Iran's role has been seen by the American military. Much of the concern has revolved around Iran's role in arming and assisting Shiite militias.
Citing the testimony of detainees, a captured militant's diary and numerous uncovered weapons caches, among other intelligence, the field reports recount Iran's role in providing Iraqi militia fighters with rockets, magnetic bombs that can be attached to the underside of cars, "explosively formed penetrators," or EFP's, which are the most lethal type of roadside bomb in Iraq, and other weapons.
Iraqi militants went to Iran to be trained as snipers and in the use of explosives, the field reports say, and Iran's Quds Force collaborated with Iraqi extremists to encourage the assassination of Iraqi officials.
Detainees suffered most in Iraqi hands
The documents contain indelible details of abuse carried out by Iraq's army and police force. The six years of reports include references to the deaths of at least six prisoners in Iraqi custody, most of them in recent years. Beatings, burnings and lashings surfaced in hundreds of reports, giving the impression that such treatment was not an exception. In one case, Americans suspected Iraqi army officers of cutting off the fingers of a detainee and burning him with acid. Two other cases produced accounts of the executions of bound detainees.
Some of the worst examples of Iraqi abuse came later in the war. In August 2009, an Iraqi police commando unit reported that a detainee committed suicide, but an autopsy conducted in the presence of an American "found bruises and burns on the detainee's body as well as visible injuries to the head, arm, torso, legs, and neck." The report stated that the police "have reportedly begun an investigation."
Then in December, 12 Iraqi soldiers were caught on video in Tal Afar shooting to death a prisoner whose hands were tied. The document on the episode says that the reporting is preliminary; it is unclear whether there was a follow-up.
U.S. soldiers often intervened. In August 2006, a U.S. sergeant in Ramadi heard whipping noises in a military police station and walked in on an Iraqi lieutenant using an electrical cable to slash the bottom of a detainee's feet. The American stopped him but later found the same Iraqi officer whipping a detainee's back.