A treasure trove of secret files from the battlefields of Iraq, shedding detailed light on deaths, prisoner abuse and imperialist allegations regarding the involvement of Iran, has been leaked by the whistleblower website WikiLeaks.
It is the second such dossier leaked by this website. The first leak, of some 77,000 reports, covered six years of the war in Afghanistan. The present dossier of 391,832 classified military documents reveals the sheer brutality, cupidity and venality of the occupation regime in Iraq, its contractors and its quislings.
According to these documents, US soldiers killed civilians – at checkpoints, from helicopters, as well as in operations. In one documented instance, in February 2007, an Apache helicopter shot and killed two Iraqi men even though they made motions to surrender because, according to a lawyer cited in the report, “they cannot surrender to aircraft, and are still valid targets”. This is strange, since in three other cases reported in the archive, Iraqis surrendered to helicopters without being shot.
Such killings continue to take place in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
An article in the New York Times stated that “Civilians have borne the brunt of modern warfare, with 10 civilians dying for every soldier in wars fought since the mid-20th century, compared with nine soldiers killed for every civilian in World War I, according to a 2001 study by the International Committee of the Red Cross.” (‘A grim portrait of civilian death in Iraq’ by Sabrina Tavernise and Andrew W Lehren, 23 October 2010)
There has been unprecedented reliance on private contractors in the US-led war on Iraq. The documents paint a graphic picture of the outsourcing of combat and other tasks once performed by soldiers, an outsourcing that expanded and spread to Afghanistan to such an extent that contractors have outnumbered soldiers in both wars.
In addition to outsourcing combat duties to private contractors in Iraq, the US outsourced torture and brutality to its Iraqi puppets. Although, according to the reports, most of the civilians were killed by other Iraqis, this only happened under the US watch, with the Americans turning a blind eye to the vast scale of acts of torture, many of which ended up in the killing of the victims.
The leaks confirm earlier allegations that US forces handed over prisoners to the Wolf Brigade, the much-dreaded second battalion of the Iraqi interior ministry’s commandos, notorious for their torture and extra-judicial killings, with the aim of extracting more information from the detainees by methods that were not allowed by US rules. Be that as it may, US forces were complicit in torture and, as an occupying power, the US forces are accountable under international law.
Iraq Body Count (IBC), an organisation that claims to track civilian deaths by using press reports, has stated since the latest revelations that it has listed a further 15,000 deaths that had not previously been disclosed anywhere. Since IBC had previously given an estimate of Iraqi civilian casualties between 2004 and 2009 as being a mere 100,000, its newly revised estimate of total civilian casualties arising from the war is still shockingly low.
On top of the thousands of civilian casualties unreported previously, the latest leaks revealed more than 1,300 cases of torture by the Iraqi police and army between 2005 and 2009. During the same period, more than 180,000 people were detained at some point – one in 50 Iraqi males.
As shocking as these figures are, what is revealed is merely the tip of the iceberg, for these are incidents that the US army knew about, or chose to have knowledge of, or chose to report.
For instance, there are no reports of the ‘shock-and-awe’ year of 2003, and none from the tens of thousands of post-attack Pentagon bombing assessments; nor do the leaks say anything about civilian deaths resulting from major atrocities, such as the blitzkrieg that destroyed the city of Fallujah in 2004.
Attempts to hide the real death toll
The leaks reveal not just savage violence and criminality in occupied Iraq but also the single-minded determination of the US forces and the Iraqi puppet government to conceal civilian casualties.
The US and British governments have done all in their power to smear credible scientific analysis of the likely death toll, which is more than ten times higher than that reported by most of the imperialist mass media, all of which have opted to rely on their preferred source – IBC – and ignored altogether the figures offered by the 2004 and 2006 Lancet studies.
The second of these studies found 655,000 excess deaths consequent upon the 2003 invasion, and these figures have since been revised upwards again to over a million. The army of mercenary journalists in the pay of the corporate media have, through intellectual dishonesty, managed to distort the evidence of far higher casualties than those reported in the media, concluding instead that the WikiLeaks files ‘prove’ that the newly rounded up IBC figures are, in fact, the correct ones.
The attempt to belittle the true significance of the Lancet findings, and to disarm the critics of the murderous and predatory Iraq war, is typified by the BBC’s Paul Reynolds who, relying on IBC’s analysis of WikiLeaks reports, asserted that “120,000 might well become the standard accepted figure for civilian deaths in the Iraq invasion and its aftermath”. (Cited in ‘WikiLeaks – the smear and the denial’, medialens.org, 3 November 2010)
Les Roberts, one of the co-authors of the Lancet studies (the other being Gilbert Burnham), in reply to an email from Reynolds, wrote: “I remain confident that because people are systematically prone to under-report deaths, our 600,000 violent death estimate by mid 2006 was too low. ”
He added: “There are just so many things that are not consistent with 120,000 deaths! … The ORB [Opinion Research Business] implication that one in four households have lost someone [as opposed to the one in 20 or one in 25 as per the assertions of IBC] matches all the general reports I hear. You cannot have the Iraqi Ambassador reporting half a million new war widows or UNICEF speculating that there are a million orphans if there are [only] 120,000 war deaths.” (Cited in ibid)
As the US military has all along tried to suppress the truth about the actual extent of Iraqi deaths, the war logs, which record an unknown portion of the violent deaths reported by US soldiers on the ground, are not an accurate guide in this context. The 2006 Lancet study, however, estimated all excess deaths consequent upon the war (not just violent deaths) using proven epidemiological methods.
The war logs are testimony to the lies told by the US government and its Iraqi quislings about civilian deaths and their attempts to cover them up. This presents a particular problem since “the IBC study is based on media reports in a country where the ability of journalists to report civilian deaths, indeed, to stay alive, is absolutely dependent on US and Iraqi government support and military cooperation”. (Ibid)
When violence reaches high levels, the coverage of war is reduced to “mouse journalism” (to use the apt expression of the Independent’s Robert Fisk), with journalists barely venturing outside their hotels. Precisely because violence is escalating and more deaths are occurring, fewer are being reported, since the reporters are not free to travel and find out about them. This documented phenomenon is particularly significant in Iraq, which has been the most dangerous conflict for covering journalists since the second world war.
In the words of Iraqi journalist Sahar Issa, uttered in a speech he made in 2007, “To be a journalist in violence-ridden Iraq today, ladies and gentlemen, is not a matter lightly undertaken. Every path is strewn with danger, every question a direct threat, every interview we conduct may be our last.”
Given the all-pervasive climate of fear, the public do not talk to journalists about civilian deaths, let alone to the Iraqi state agencies, which are currently just official covers for sectarian and murderous occupation-sponsored militias.
The whole truth – the true extent of civilian deaths, torture and incarceration – will only come out once the Iraqi people have expelled the foreign occupiers, overthrown the puppet Iraqi government of traitors, and established a democratic regime representing the Iraqi people, their aspirations and interests.
In view of the above, what justification can there be for journalists to rely entirely on IBC’s media-reported figures, while stubbornly ignoring the credible, peer-reviewed, epidemiological, scientific studies of the Lancet? Blood money and a desire not to jeopardise their careers and cosy lifestyles is the most probable answer.
Reviewing the WikiLeaks documents, Professor John Tirman, Executive Director and Principal Research Scientist at MIT’s Center for International Studies, commented:
“The most authoritative review of all the mortality estimates — passive and active — appeared in the professional journal Conflict and Health in March 2008, and concluded that population-based surveys are superior (for the reasons discussed here), and that ‘of the population-based studies, the [Hopkins] studies provided the most rigorous methodology’. The passive reporting, these experts agree, suffers from under-reporting and inability to capture indirect deaths, and thereby called into question the estimates of IBC, the Brookings index, the UN office in Baghdad, and other such efforts.
“There is also the matter of corroborating evidence, which typically is overlooked. Two pieces in particular are powerful. The first is the number of displaced Iraqis, estimated between 3.5 and 5 million. Hundreds of interviews of those in Syria and Jordan suggest nearly all fled because of violence in their neighbourhoods. No war has produced more than about a 10 to one ratio of displaced to dead, and in most wars the ratio is about five to one or narrower. The five to one ratio would translate into at least 700,000 deaths in Iraq.
“The second and less reliable number is the overwhelming number of widows, some from earlier wars, which the Iraqi government has variously estimated at about 750,000.”
Tirman concluded: “The evidence, then, is rather clear and compelling. Something like 700,000 or more Iraqis have been killed either through direct or ‘structural’ violence in the period since the US invaded more than seven years ago. The number could easily be as high as a million … ” (Quoted in medialens.org, op cit)
Although the figures concerning civilian deaths revealed by the latest dossier are only marginally higher than those compiled by IBC, their significance lies in the disclosure of the methods used by the US military and the Iraqi government forces in the treatment of their victims – ranging from arbitrary detention to torture and extra-judicial killings – and the attempts by the occupation and its Iraqi stooges to suppress the truth about these methods and the extent of the killings.
Precisely for this reason, WikiLeaks has been targeted for a vicious smear campaign by Anglo-American imperialism, its corporate media and the obliging fraternity of mercenary journalists.
The founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, was described as “a frighteningly amoral person” by Hugo Rifkind in The Times of 26 October 2010. Clearly Mr Rifkind has lost all sense of morality, for anyone who dares to make an enemy of the world’s chief rogue state, the US, in order to highlight the truth about the horrors that the predatory wars against Afghanistan and Iraq have inflicted on those countries can appear ‘frighteningly amoral’ only to the purveyors of poisonous lies in the interests of their corporate employers and the imperialist bourgeoisie at large.
Assange was further characterised in the New York Times as a “social misfit”, carrying the baggage of an “unsettled childhood in Australia”, and suffering from “delusional grandeur unmatched by an awareness that the digital secrets he reveals can have a price in flesh and blood”. (‘WikiLeaks chief on the run’ by John F Burns and Ravi Somaiya, 23 October 2010)
David Aaronovitch, from whom we have come to expect a mixture of the most disgustingly reactionary and childish journalism, thought fit in his article for the Independent to focus on Assange’s jacket, shirt and shoes – “incredibly long and pointy black winkle-pickers”, as if to say how could anyone wearing such clothes and shoes be taken seriously. As a matter of fact, it is Mr Aaronovitch, writer of trash in the service of his imperialist masters, who needs to be treated with utter contempt.
Bradley Manning, the 22-year-old army private who allegedly supplied the classified dossier to WikiLeaks, got similar treatment from the New York Times, which described how “classmates made fun of him for being a geek” or for being “gay”; that Manning’s partner had described himself as a “drag queen”; and that his disclosures were motivated by his “desperation for acceptance”.
The point of these personal attacks is to deprive the victims of these smears of any higher moral motivation for their actions by means of a crooked psychoanalysis which attributes their courageous and moral stance to supposed childhood problems and ‘attention seeking’.
The Times, in an editorial of 25 October, accused WikiLeaks of being irresponsible and of “culpable heedlessness of human life”. And this from The Times, which is notorious for “heedlessness of human life” and its enthusiastic support for a series of imperialist wars, with the resultant indiscriminate bombing, torture and killings meted out to their victims.
Geoff Morrell, the Defence Department press secretary, condemned WikiLeaks in these strong terms: “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.”
Mr Morrell ought to have remembered to mention that it is US imperialism and its partners in criminal wars in Afghanistan and Iraq who are guilty of putting at risk the lives of their own soldiers and of the Afghan and Iraqi people alike; who have done to death over a million Iraqis (two million when one adds in those killed by the sanctions previously) and tens of thousands of Afghans.
Far from endangering lives, such publications, by heightening public awareness, actually serve to strengthen the anti-war and working-class movement. In fact, failure to publish such information merely whets the appetite of Anglo-American imperialism in its inevitable quest for the next target of its killing machine, be it Iran, Yemen, Syria, Cuba or China.
The only forces capable of putting an end to imperialist wars are the proletariat and the oppressed masses. Their interests are in no way hurt by publications of the sort made available by WikiLeaks. The internet is helping marginalised people and organisations to break through the blockade of the corporate media. Life will never be the same again, for the robber barons of capitalism and their gigantic media lie machines will be challenged at every step by readers who refuse to accept that human lives and truth should be sacrificed at the altar of profit, privilege and power.