Wikileaks, the website devoted to publishing classified documents on the Internet, made a splash today with a video claiming to show that the U.S. military "murdered" a Reuters cameraman and other Iraqi "civilians" in Baghdad on July 12, 2007. But a careful watching of the video shows that the U.S. helicopter gun crews that attacked a group of armed men in the then Mahdi Army stronghold of New Baghdad was anything but "Collateral Murder," as Wikileaks describes the incident.
There are a couple of things to note in the video. First, Wikileaks characterizes the attack as the U.S. military casually gunning down Iraqis who were innocently gathering on the streets of New Baghdad. But the video begins somewhat abruptly, with a UAV starting to track a group of Iraqi males gathering on the streets. The voice of a U.S. officer is captured in mid-sentence. It would be nice to know what happened before Wikileaks decided to begin the video. The U.S. military claimed the Iraqis were killed after a gun battle with U.S. and Iraqi security forces. It is unclear if any of that was captured on the strike footage. Here is what the U.S. military had to say about the engagement in a July 2007 press release:
Soldiers of 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, and the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, both operating in eastern Baghdad under the 2nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, along with their Iraqi counterparts from the 1st Battalion, 4th Brigade, 1st Division National Police, were conducting a coordinated raid as part of a planned operation when they were attacked by small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades. Coalition Forces returned fire and called in attack aviation reinforcement.
There is nothing in that video that is inconsistent with the military's report. What you see is the air weapons team engaging armed men.
Second, note how empty the streets are in the video. The only people visible on the streets are the armed men and the accompanying Reuters cameramen. This is a very good indicator that there was a battle going on in the vicinity. Civilians smartly clear the streets during a gunfight.
Third, several of the men are clearly armed with assault rifles; one appears to have an RPG. Wikileaks purposely chooses not to identify them, but instead focuses on the Reuters cameraman. Why?
Fourth, there is no indication that the U.S. military weapons crew that fired on this group of armed men violated the military's Rules of Engagement. Ironically, Wikileaks published the military's Rules of Engagement from 2007, which you can read here. What you do see in the video is troops working to identify targets and confirm they were armed before engaging. Once the engagement began, the U.S. troops ruthlessly hunted their prey.
Fifth, critics will undoubtedly be up in arms over the attack on that black van you see that moves in to evacuate the wounded; but it is not a marked ambulance, nor is such a vehicle on the "Protected Collateral Objects" listed in the Rules of Engagement. The van, which was coming to the aid of the fighters, was fair game, even if the men who exited the van weren't armed.
Sixth, Wikileaks' claim that the U.S. military's decision to pass the two children inside the van to the Iraqi police for treatment at an Iraqi hospital threatened their lives is unsubstantiated. We do not know the medical assessment of the two Iraqi children wounded in the airstrike. We don't even know if the children were killed in the attack, although you can be sure that if they were Wikileaks would have touted this. (And who drives their kids into the middle of a war zone anyway?) Having been at attacks where Iraqis have been killed and wounded, I can say I understand a little about the process that is used to determine if wounded Iraqis are transported to a U.S. hospital. The person has to be considered to have a life-threatening situation or in danger of losing a vital function (eyesight, etc.). Yet, even though the threshold to transfer Iraqis to U.S. military hospitals is high, I have repeatedly seen U.S. personnel err on the side of caution and transport wounded who probably should not have been sent to a U.S. hospital.
Baghdad in July 2007 was a very violent place, and the neighborhoods of Sadr City and New Baghdad were breeding grounds for the Mahdi Army and associated Iranian-backed Shia terror groups. The city was a war zone. To describe the attack you see in the video as "murder" is a sensationalist gimmick that succeeded in driving tons of media attention and traffic to Wikileaks' website.