Controversy over the U.S. military's conduct during an engagement in New Baghdad on July 12, 2007 continues to swirl after WikiLeaks released the video of the gun camera footage from the Apaches that fired on a Mahdi Army element that day. The U.S. Army investigated this incident after it occurred and cleared the Apache crews of wrongdoing. And if you read the investigation and watch the tape, you'll see the findings of the investigation are consistent with what you see on the video.
The U.S. military has released the AR 15-6, the official investigation, and supporting documents relating to the July 12, 2007 engagement. If you read one document, read the AR 15-6. Ignore the first seven pages of bureaucratic paperwork and start on page 8, which provides a summary and the findings of the investigation.
Here are a couple of important items highlighted from the AR 15-6. First, the Apache crew began their patrol in Baghdad at 0930 (or 9:30 a.m. local Baghdad time for us civilians), and the engagement in New Baghdad began at 1019. If you watch that video again, you'll notice that the streets are empty in the area surrounding the engagement, even before the Apaches opened fire. This is a clear indication that fighting was ongoing and civilians were taking cover in their homes.
Second, the report states the Apache crew was assigned to support an ongoing mission in New Baghdad. Items in brackets have been inserted by me for clarification:
Tasked to conduct escort, armed reconnaissance patrols, counter-IED and counter mortar operations over Baghdad from 0930 through 1330, the team departed Camp Taji at 0924 hours and began conducting task in accordance with their planned scheme of maneuver. After escorting a team of UH-60s [Blackhawk helicopters] to COP Callahan and harmonizing their 30mm cannons in Zone 101, the AWT was redirected to support troops in contact in Baghdad Security Zone 30. Soldiers from 2-16 IN [infantry] were conducting operations in support of OPERATION ILAAJ (CURE) in the Mualameen Muhallah of Tisa Nisan District, East Baghdad [better known as New Baghdad]. At 0953 hours, the AWT arrive on station and began operations in support of B/1-26 IN.
To clarify, the Apache team was directed to New Baghdad to "to support troops in contact," or in other words, to provide air support for the ground forces during clashes in New Baghdad. The helicopters weren't simply wandering Baghdad in search of someone to kill. The AR 15-6 is clear that fighting was "sporadic" but still underway.
Upon arriving on station, sporadic attacks on friend forces continued. The AWT conducted local security operations and initiated a reconnaissance effort to find, report, and destroy hostile forces engaging our brothers on the ground.
Third, the Apache team clearly thought they saw armed men pointing weapons at a nearby U.S. ground element. The Jawa Report does an excellent job highlighting the video evidence of various insurgents carrying weapons, including what appears to be an RPG (I won't rehash that here). The video shows what appears to be armed men who are about to engage a U.S. military element nearby. The U.S. ground element was very close, "approximately one city block away," according to the report:
At 1019, Crazyhorse 19 (trail aircraft) identified personnel with weapons (AK-47s and a RPG), both held and slung over the shoulder, in the vicinity of an open area East of the friendly unit's position and approximately one city block away. Having positively identified personnel with weapons, the AWT initiated an engagement sequence.
...Crazyhorse 18's copilot/gunner (lead aircraft - front seat) perceived an escalation of the immediate threat to our ground troops after observing an individual peering around a building, preparing to fire an RPG at a friendly HMMWV positioned at the end of the block. Crazyhorse 18's pilot (lead aircraft - back seat) viewed the copilot/gunner's TADS imagery and confirmed his assessment after quickly looking outside the aircraft and acquiring the threat without optics.
If you watch that video again, you'll hear a direct reference to the ground element. At 3:05 in the full video, here, you'll hear a member of the Apache crew identify the ground element:
I see your element, uh, got about four Humvees, uh, out along...
And then later one of the Apache crew asks what appears to be the ground element commander for permission to engage, and is given permission. The ground commander responds:
Roger that. Uh, we have no personnel east of our position.
This all matches with the initial report on the incident in the Washington Post:
The intensive six-hour operation began at 6 a.m., when 240 U.S. soldiers in 65 Humvees, several Bradley Fighting Vehicles and two Apache attack helicopters descended on the al-Amin neighborhood, along with a dozen Iraqi troops, in response to increasing attacks on American soldiers by members of the Mahdi Army, the Shiite militia loyal to cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
Finally, in the findings section of the report, the investigators concluded that the Apache crews acted appropriately and followed the rules of engagement.
As the situation developed, the AWT exercised sound judgment and discrimination during attempts to acquire insurgents, or moreover, to identify personnel engaged in hostile or threatening activities against our brothers on the ground.
Now the military's investigation and findings can be dismissed as a cover-up, as some have done, but from what we can see from the video, the description provided in the investigation matches what you see on the Apache gun camera video. It would be interesting to see if other video exists of the firefight that preceded the Apache strike (perhaps from other unarmed UAVs). But given that CENTCOM is unsure it can even recover the Apache videotape to match it with the WikiLeaks tape, the odds of it coming to light are slim.