A Grim Portrait of Civilian Deaths in Iraq
By SABRINA TAVERNISE and ANDREW W. LEHREN
Published: October 22, 2010
The reports in the archive 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, werekilled by other Iraqis. Two of the worst days of the war came on Aug. 31, 2005, when a stampede on a bridge in Baghdad killed more than 950 people after several earlier attacks panicked a huge crowd, and on Aug. 14, 2007, when truck bombs killed more than 500 people in a rural area near the border with Syria.
But it was systematic sectarian cleansing that drove the killing to its most frenziedpoint, making December 2006 the worst month of the war, according to the reports, with about 3,800 civilians killed, roughly equal to the past seven years of murders in New York City. A total of 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 American soldiers killed civilians— at checkpoints, from helicopters, in operations. Such killings are a central reason Iraqis turned against the American presence in their country, a situation that is now being repeated in Afghanistan.
The archive contains reports on at least four cases of lethal shootings from helicopters. In the bloodiest, on July 16, 2007, as many as 26 Iraqis were killed, about half of them civilians.However, the tally was called in by two different people, and it is possible that the deaths were counted twice. Read the Document »
In another case, in February 2007, 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.” Read the Document »
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 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 thesuccess, or failure, of America’s war effort. Americans on both sides of the war 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. As a 2008 report to Congress on the topic makes clear, the figures serve as “guideposts,’ not hard totals. But it does seem to suggest numbers that are roughly in line withthose compiled by several sources, including Iraq Body Count, an organization that tracked civilian deaths using press reports, a method the Bush administration repeatedly derided as unreliable and producing inflated numbers. In all, the five-year archive lists more than 100,000 dead from 2004 to 2009, though some deaths are reported more than once, and some reports have inconsistent casualtyfigures. A 2008 Congressional report warned that record keeping in the war had been so problematic that such statistics should be looked at only as “guideposts.”
In a statement on Friday, Iraq Body Count, which did a preliminary analysis of the archive, estimated that it listed 15,000 deaths that had not been previously disclosed anywhere.
The archive tells thousands of individual stories ofloss whose consequences are still being felt in Iraqi families today.
Misunderstandings at checkpoints were often lethal. At one Marine checkpoint, sunlight glinting off a windshield of a car that did not slow down led to the shooting death of a mother and the wounding of three of her daughters and her husband. Hand signals flashed to stop vehicles were often not understood, and soldiers and...
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