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Hellfire from the Sky: Iraq War Logs Reveal Details of Dubious Apache Attacks

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Two Iraqis wanted to surrender, but were gunned down by an American helicopter. The Iraq war logs reveal a number of dubious attacks by Apache helicopters and raise the question of whether US pilots committed war crimes.

Photo Gallery: Fire in the Sky Photos
REUTERS

The United States military report dated July 12, 2007, 9:50 a.m., is just a few lines long, 893 characters to be precise. The document, which is full of military acronyms, deals with an incident in Baghdad and is included in a category called "Direct Fire," which describes military clashes between Americans and Iraqis. It is one of 59,000 reports in this category included in the documents that WikiLeaks has now released on the Iraq war.

It isn't even particularly noticeable, not even because of the number of victims it describes. The report talks of "13 AIF KIA," in the military jargon of the US Army. Translated, it means that 13 enemies ("anti-Iraqi forces") were "killed in action." The report also mentions two wounded adults and two wounded Iraqi children. The six sentences relate chronologically how helicopters fired missiles at the enemy, apparently after US ground troops had come under small-arms fire.

It sounds like a routine firefight. But the incident described so tersely by the brief report would later change the way many people viewed the war. The events of that July morning were recorded on video. The incident has now become world famous, after the video was released by WikiLeaks. The footage shows a brutal helicopter attack in which US soldiers killed defenseless civilians.

'Look at Those Dead Bastards'

The supposed "anti-Iraqi forces" who were killed were probably Iraqis who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, including two employees of the Reuters news agency. The video also shows how the crews asked for permission to open fire on a minibus rushing to the scene -- and how they obtained it.

The two severely injured children, who were in the minibus when it came under fire, lost their father in the attacks. He had been driving them to school when he stopped to help the injured Reuters driver.

The shocking footage of the incident is the original video taken from one of the two Apache helicopters, codenamed Crazyhorse 18 and 19, that were involved in the incident. It is filmed from the perspective of the American shooter. In April 2010, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange presented the video, which he had titled "Collateral Murder," at the National Press Club in Washington. At the time, it was the whistleblowing organization's biggest scoop to date.

The roughly 18-minute video is difficult to watch, partly because it isn't clear what's worse: the images or the recorded conversations of the helicopter crew. "Nice," says one crew member after a deadly salvo. "Look at those dead bastards." The conversation continues in a similar tone.

Distorting Reality

But there is a huge gulf between the brief text of the military report that has now been published by WikiLeaks and the footage captured by the helicopter's camera. The discrepancy makes clear that the military incident reports do not manage to capture the brutal reality of the war. In fact, the opposite is true -- the reports actually distort the reality.

Comparing the video evidence and the terse, unspectacular-seeming original report raises the question as to what might have happened during incidents where the internal military reports make for more dramatic reading. And there are plenty of those. Just looking at reports involving the tradition-steeped 227th Aviation Regiment with its fleet of Apache helicopters, which was responsible for the "Collateral Murder" incident, reveals enough examples.

In 2007, the Baghdad battalions of the Fort Hood, Texas-based unit were stationed in Camp Taji to the north of the Iraqi capital. For a total period of 15 months between the end of 2006 and early 2008, the soldiers flew missions from the base. Many of those operations involved particularly "robust" interventions, to use the military jargon.

The black Apache helicopters are heavily armed, cost about $20 million each and can fly at speeds of around 300 kilometers per hour (190 mph). They are also equipped with 30 mm cannons and Hellfire missiles. Ground troops who get caught up in firefights often call in the helicopters for support. Whenever the Apaches appeared in the sky over Baghdad, it wasn't uncommon for hell to break loose on the ground.

'Valid Targets'

Another incident involving the helicopter codenamed Crazyhorse 18 on Feb. 22, 2007 stands out in the records.

On that day, attack helicopters chased a dump truck on the ground. The US helicopter pilots apparently identified a truck equipped with heavy weapons, from which mortar shells were being fired. They destroyed the vehicle. Two Iraqis fled headlong from the scene in a dump truck, heading north. Crazyhorse 18 went on their trail, and opened fire on them. Then something unexpected happened.

The dump truck stopped. The Iraqis "came out wanting to surrender," the report relates. Apparently, the American helicopter crew was at a loss for a moment and was unsure how to deal with the situation. They called via radio for support from a military lawyer. The report continues: "Lawyer states they can not surrender to aircraft and are still valid targets."

The attack helicopter was cleared again to "engage" the vehicle. Crazyhorse 18 fired a Hellfire missile at the two men, but missed the target. The two Iraqis then took refuge in a shack.

The helicopter crew did not give up. They opened fire on the shack. This time they hit their target. "Crazyhorse 18 reports engaged and destroyed shack with 2 x AIF (anti-Iraqi forces)," reads the report.

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US Reaction to Iraq War Logs
Click on the headlines to read the responses to SPIEGEL provided by Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell ...
On the Planned WikiLeaks Publication
"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. We know terrorist organizations have been mining the leaked Afghan documents for information to use against us and this Iraq leak is more than four times as large. By disclosing such sensitive information, WikiLeaks continues to put at risk the lives of our troops, their coalition partners and those Iraqis and Afghans working with us. The only responsible course of action for WikiLeaks at this point is to return the stolen material and expunge it from their websites as soon as possible."
On the Episodes Detailed in the Documents
"We strongly condemn the unauthorized disclosure of classified information and will not comment on these leaked documents other than to note that 'significant activities' reports are initial, raw observations by tactical units. They are essentially snapshots of events, both tragic and mundane, and do not tell the whole story. That said, the period covered by these reports has been well-chronicled in news stories, books and films and the release of these field reports does not bring new understanding to Iraq's past."

"However, it does expose secret information that could make our troops even more vulnerable to attack in the future. Just as with the leaked Afghan documents, we know our enemies will mine this information looking for insights into how we operate, cultivate sources, and react in combat situations, even the capability of our equipment. This security breach could very well get our troops and those they are fighting with killed."
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