The war never sleeps, including this Thursday.
It's seven minutes past midnight, and US soldiers are on an operation in the northwestern Iraqi city of Haditha. They apprehend two men that intelligence reports say are insurgents. The men are then taken to a nearby operating base for interrogation. "No casualties or damages reported," the military report of the operation reads. That's all. No other details about the men or the operation.
The log of the event at 0:07 hours is classified as secret -- just like the 359 other logs that were filed on Nov. 23, 2006, in the US Army database. They cover routine operations such as the arrest, but also attacks in which hundreds of people will be killed.
More than 390,000 documents from 2004-2009 recently made public by the website WikiLeaks show the Iraq war from a rarely seen perspective: that of the soldiers fighting it. They log every battlefield drama, whether in Baghdad or Basra, Fallujah or Haditha, in a template containing 32 standard categories: X enemies killed, X US soldiers killed, X civilians killed, types of incidents, short summaries and more.
It is a conflict compressed into a grid. It's not a perfect grid because soldiers are likely to have made mistakes in their reports or may have bent the truth. In 2006, a UN report calculated 34,452 civilian deaths as a result of violence in Iraq, referring to data from the Iraqi Health Ministry. That's a rate of 94 deaths per day. The number of civilian deaths according to US Army documents total just 25,178 in 2006. It's impossible to say whose figures are correct -- it all depends on how you count.
Of course, the logs don't tell the entire story. The material posted by WikiLeaks is only made up of documents marked secret, not top secret. That means many major events are omitted. The true significance of the documents lies in the fact that they provide a previously unavailable view of the recent history of this war-torn country.
Suddenly, it is possible to track in minute detail how the US military portrayed the situation on days such as Nov. 23, 2006, a day during the bloodiest period of the Iraqi civil war between Sunnis and Shiites, and before the now legendary US "surge" policy that finally helped to improve the situation.
The documents show, among other things, how omnipresent homemade bombs -- what the US military calls "improvised explosive devices" or IEDs -- were each day in Iraq. On that Thursday alone, US forces dealt with 118 such infernal devices, half of which exploded. The field reports describe events such as these:
- 1 a.m.: A bomb explodes in Balad Ruz, Diyala province, near a private residence. No injuries reported.
- 2:19 a.m.: A bomb explodes in Baghdad wounding US soldiers.
At 6:41 a.m. the sun rises over Baghdad, it's a fresh 46 degrees Fahrenheit (8 degrees Celsius). Three minutes later the following report arrives:
- 6:44 a.m.: Another explosion, this time the log records one death and two injuries. The soldiers make a mistake and fill the document out incorrectly. In the table accounting for killed and wounded, all fields indicate zero.
- That is followed by more explosions at 7:07 a.m. when a patrol drives over a booby trap -- no one is wounded.
- At 7:31 a.m. a convoy southeast of Tikrit comes under fire and a bomb explodes; no one is wounded.
- At 7:45 a.m. an explosion in a Baghdad garage kills five members of the Iraqi security forces.
- At 7:55 a.m., another explosion, with five Iraqi nationals injured.
So it continues, incident after incident. Not all of the reports are about IEDs laid for unsuspecting US troops. Some troops are shot, some come across suspicious items and people; there are raids, air strikes and vehicle patrols.
- 9 a.m., Baghdad: Five unidentified dead civilians are discovered. Their bodies show signs of torture and gunshot wounds. The bodies are turned over for forensic examinations. "No other information," reads the report.
- 9:40 a.m., northeast of Baqouba: A boy dies from an IED explosion in Muqdadiyah, Diyala province. His corpse is brought to a local hospital. "The child was four years old," the log notes.
- 9:45 a.m.: A foot patrol comes under fire in Barwanah; the rounds hit five meters (16 feet) in front of the soldiers. Two insurgents are spotted firing AK-47 automatic rifles from a house 200 meters away. The US Marines respond with fire from M-249 machine guns. Both insurgents flee the house, and the patrol is unable to locate them after searching several buildings and the surrounding area. No injuries.
- 1:45 p.m.: A watch post at Camp Summerall in Bayji, northwest of Baghdad, discovers a man digging by the side of the road 300 meters (985 feet) from the base and fires warning shots. "The individual dropped the shovel and ran away. No BDA," which means "body damage assessment." The log also notes that the individual was estimated to be between 10 and 12 years old.
- 1:45 p.m., west of Fallujah: A four-vehicle patrol traveling in a convoy with a seven-ton military truck loaded with fuel near the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah encounters a Chevrolet Suburban SUV in taxi colors which makes a U-turn and speeds toward the convoy. Two vehicles in the convoy are able to swerve, but the seven-ton fuel truck can't. "The driver [of the truck] and the passenger were able to exit the vehicle before it was engulfed in flames," the log notes. The report indicates one enemy was killed.
It's a typical day's work. The daily routine is brutal in this war.
Then, in the afternoon, the sky over Baghdad is heavy with smoke and all hell breaks loose.
The log of the incident, which will be reported worldwide, begins at 3:38 p.m. A car bomb explodes in Baghdad, the log says. It reads like dozens of other reports on this day. It says the damage caused by the explosion is not yet known and neither is anything about the number of casualties.
The weather report on this day on the website Weather Underground says "smoke" at 3:55 p.m.
An update follows at 4:56 p.m.: Six bombs have exploded in the Shiite stronghold of Sadr City. At 5:04 p.m., public authorities close Baghdad Airport. At the same time, the first report of the attack appears on SPIEGEL ONLINE. A report with the headline "The Day of Terror: Curfew After the Worst Attacks Since the Beginning of the War" is published in the hours following.
The Associated Press writes that the "fiery explosions sent up huge plumes of black smoke over northeastern Baghdad, and left streets covered with burning bodies and blood." The survivors of the blasts, some of them terribly mutilated, are treated in hospitals. The bombers struck a crowded market, where many people had been buying food for the weekend.
At 7:15 p.m. another report follows with updated figures: 133 dead, 201 injured. The report's summary reads: Six car bombs, 181 civilians killed, 247 civilians wounded and the degree of combat damage unknown.
The report reads like a sober inventory list, describing the climax of one of the bloodiest days in the Iraqi civil war.
The field reports on this day alone list 318 deaths, of which 281 were civilians. During these weeks Shiites and Sunnis attack each other relentlessly, but the war logs rarely mention the religious affiliation of the attackers or victims. Many are found tortured and murdered and the logs don't give any hint of the circumstances surrounding the incidents.
The incidents are reported around the clock. At the end of the day, 70 deaths are reported as sectarian murders throughout the country, most of which take place in the heart of Iraq while only a few are reported in the north and south. The vast majority happened during the day, the incidents drop during the night.
- 11:30 p.m.: A US military unit follows up on information that an IED could have been planted along Route Tampa, an important supply route for the military. The unit finds a "landmine that looks like a frisbee with three wires emerging from a black bag." In the log, the word "frisbee" is misspelled "fisbee." The unit requests a bomb disposal team. The bomb experts arrive at 1:10 a.m. with a rapid deployment force from Romania. About five and a half hours later, the team declares the assumed bomb is a dummy.
- 11:59 p.m.: According to the logs, the US military ended the day with two incidents in which no one was killed. The soldier filing the log reports that three rockets landed in the al-Rashid airbase on the southern outskirts of Baghdad. No damage and no injuries are reported. At the same time, a soldier reports the findings of a raid in Mosul, northern Iraq: All involved in the raid have returned and there was "nothing significant to report."
What remains of Nov. 23, 2006, in the collective memory of the US military? Incidents: 360. Deaths: 318. Minimum injured: 373.
A normal day in Iraq, where at that time the war never slept.