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Wikileaks Releases Treasure Trove Of Iraq War Documents

There’s been another document dump of mostly low-level classified documents by Wikileaks, this time about the seven-year long Iraq War:

A massive cache of secret U.S. field reports from the Iraq war provides grim new details about the toll of that conflict, indicating that more than 100,000 Iraqis were killed during a six-year stretch and that American forces often failed to intervene as the U.S.-backed government brutalized detainees, according to news organizations given access to the documents by the WikiLeaks Web site.

The nearly 400,000 records are described as offering a chilling, pointillist view of the war’s peak years, documenting thousands of civilian deaths – including hundreds killed at checkpoints manned by U.S. soldiers – and the burgeoning role that American contractors came to play in the conflict.

But the logs are perhaps most disturbing in their portrayal of the Iraqi government that has taken control of security in the country as U.S. forces withdraw.

The documents, including some dated as recently as 2009, report the deaths of at least six detainees in Iraqi custody because of abuse, and cite hundreds of other cases in which prisoners were subjected to electric shock, sodomized, burned, whipped or beaten by Iraqi authorities, according to an account in the Guardian, a British newspaper that was among several news organizations given advance access to the logs.

The others included the New York Times, the Qatar-based al-Jazeera satellite television network, Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine, the French newspaper Le Monde and the Channel 4 news program in Britain. WikiLeaks, an anti-secrecy group that uses servers in several countries, published the records on its Web site (WikiLeaks.org) Friday evening.

There appear to be no major revelations in the latest logs. Much like those WikiLeaks released earlier this year on the war in Afghanistan, the Iraq documents are mainly low-level field reports that reflect a soldier’s-eye view of the conflict but do not contain the most sensitive secrets held by U.S. forces or intelligence agencies.

The Pentagon condemned the release but did not question the authenticity of the files.

“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,” said Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell. He said the military would not comment on the information contained in the records but stressed that the “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.”

Even so, the spilling of so many once-secret files into public view allows for a fine-grained examination of the war. The 391,832 files included in the release cover a period from the beginning of 2004 to the end of 2009, and are more than quadruple the number of records that WikiLeaks published on the war in Afghanistan.

As with the Afghan War Logs, Der Spiegel, The Guardian, and The New York Times provide extensive coverage of the documents that were released (which are, of course, available on the Wikileaks website itself) and Marc Ambinder provides this quick summary:

The big reveal from the hundreds of thousands of documents posted on Wikileaks today is probably going to be the incredibly awful reports of systematized detainee abuse by Iraqi soldiers and security forces right under the noses of the American-led coalition, which appears to have had virtually no incentive to put a stop to them.

An operational order called Frago 242 was sent to commanders in 2004, ordering, in essence, that only detainee abuse allegations involving coalition forces would be investigated. The rest would merely be noted. And noted they were, in horrifying detail. The New York Times correctly calls this an “institutional shrug.”  By 2009, the coalition policy had evidently changed, and allegations were investigated.

There is little in the logs that detail coalition abuse of prisoners, and virtually no reporting on civilian casualties caused by coalition actions, aside from routine after-action reviews, which show confusion about rules of engagement and how easily cultural misunderstandings led to civilian deaths. In other words: war, poorly executed and planned.

The coalition estimates that 100,000 people died because of the war, with 66,000 of counted as civilians.

The other big, although not entirely surprising, reveal is the extent to which Iran was involved in trying to destabilize post-war Iraq and aid the insurgents that were causing U.S. forces so many problems:

Scores of documents made public by WikiLeaks, which has disclosed classified information about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, provide a ground-level look — at least as seen by American units in the field and the United States’ military intelligence — at the shadow war between the United States and Iraqi militias backed by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

During the administration of President George W. Bush, critics charged that the White House had exaggerated Iran’s role to deflect criticism of its handling of the war and build support for a tough policy toward Iran, including the possibility of military action.

But the field reports disclosed by WikiLeaks, which were never intended to be made public, underscore the seriousness with which Iran’s role has been seen by the American military. The political struggle between the United States and Iran to influence events in Iraq still continues as Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has sought to assemble a coalition — that would include the anti-American cleric Moktada al-Sadr — that will allow him to remain in power. But much of the American’s military concern has revolved around Iran’s role in arming and assisting Shiite militias.

Citing the testimony of detainees, a captured militant’s diary and numerous uncovered weapons caches, among other intelligence, the field reports recount Iran’s role in providing Iraqi militia fighters with rockets, magnetic bombs that can be attached to the underside of cars, “explosively formed penetrators,” or E.F.P.’s, which are the most lethal type of roadside bomb in Iraq, and other weapons. Those include powerful .50-caliber rifles and the Misagh-1, an Iranian replica of a portable Chinese surface-to-air missile, which, according to the reports, was fired at American helicopters and downed one in east Baghdad in July 2007.

Iraqi militants went to Iran to be trained as snipers and in the use of explosives, the field reports assert, and Iran’s Quds Force collaborated with Iraqi extremists to encourage the assassination of Iraqi officials.

The reports make it clear that the lethal contest between Iranian-backed militias and American forces continued after President Obama sought to open a diplomatic dialogue with Iran’s leaders and reaffirmed the agreement between the United States and Iraq to withdraw American troops from Iraq by the end of 2011.

As with the Afghanistan document dump, that information reveled in these reports isn’t exactly surprising to those who’d been following the situation in Iraq with any degree of interest over the years of the war, but the fact that so much information has come out at once is likely to have a substantial impact on public views of the war. Moreover, as with the Afghanistan documents, these documents reveal problems with our ostensible ally in Baghdad that do not necessarily bode well for the future. The documents also reveal the extent to which the Bush Administration turned a blind eye to reports of Iraqi government torture of prisoners and the death of 100,000 Iraqis as a result of the war.

Politically, it doesn’t seem as though this latest release from Wikileaks is likely to have much of an impact. They do, however, provide a much clearly picture of a controversial war.

UPDATE (James Joyner): Fred Kaplan engages in some of the contrarian thinking that Slate is known for, arguing that this actually makes the Bush administration look pretty good.

Judging from the excerpts and analyses in the English-language papers, the documents contain a few new and interesting things, some of which may not please the war critics who tend to be among WikiLeaks’ biggest fans.

First, it seems that Pentagon officials were keeping a log of civilian casualties, though spokesmen frequently said at the time that they weren’t. A secret Defense Department report estimated that just over 100,000 noncombatants were killed between 2004 and 2009.

[…]

However, the bigger finding is that, at least according to the Pentagon’s secret report, most Iraqi civilian deaths were caused by other Iraqis. The report calculates 31,780 Iraqis killed by roadside bombs and 34,814 by sectarian killings (notated as “murders”).

[…]

The WikiLeaks documents also bear out claims by some U.S. officials at the time that Iran was playing an active role in supporting Iraqi Shiite militia groups—supplying them with rockets and particularly lethal IEDs, training their snipers, and helping to plot assassinations of Iraqi officials. These activities apparently continued after Barack Obama was elected president.

[…]

Finally, the WikiLeaks documents offer abundant evidence that, while some American guards behaved horrendously toward Iraqi detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison, Iraqi police and soldiers have behaved much worse.

The documents reveal several instances of U.S. soldiers witnessing Iraqi abuses. In some cases, they tried to stop the abuse, to no avail. In one case, a soldier reported an incident to his superior, who wrote on the report, “No investigation required.”

Last summer, just before he disseminated thousands of leaked documents on the Afghanistan war, Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, told Der Spiegel, “This is something that I find meaningful and satisfying. That is my temperament. … I enjoy helping people who are vulnerable. And I enjoy crushing bastards.”

These new documents indicate, whether Assange realizes it or not, that not all the bastards are American.

That’s one way of looking at it.  Certainly, by regional standards, the American abuses were rather tame.

The problem is that Americans are — and should be —  held to much higher standards than the thug regimes of the Middle East.  We started the war and set in motion the chain of events that put the new thugs in power.   That means we bear at least some share of responsibility for their actions, especially when we’re still there working with them as partners.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. tom p says:

    “The documents also reveal the extent to which the Bush Administration turned a blind eye to reports of Iraqi government torture of prisoners”

    Hardly surprising considering the “blind eye” they turned to their own such actions.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  2. Steve Plunk says:

    So far the buzz around the leaks are bigger news than the documents themselves. War is messy and mistakes are made but that doesn’t indict our military or government of anything extraordinary.

    These leaks have not served society much at all but have attempted to damage the US. Anyone involved should be prosecuted at the first opportunity.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  3. TG Chicago says:

    As Joyner seems to be suggesting, I have no idea how Kaplan’s piece (based on the quoted excerpt) makes the Bush Administration look good.

    I question Mataconis’ claim that this will have a substantial effect on public perception. Public perception is already poor, and the specifics of the information aren’t being covered that widely.

    Honestly, I wonder if WikiLeaks should have waited to release the info until after the election. This election is not about Iraq, and this dump isn’t going to change that. I think there might be more room for interest in Iraq after we get past all the election news.

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  4. Davebo says:

    “War is messy and mistakes are made but that doesn’t indict our military or government of anything extraordinary.”

    Well, as long as we are only indicted on things ordinary and not extraordinary! I mean seriously, what’s a few hundred thousand dead civilians between newly coerced friends right?

    If only Service Corporation International had gotten the burial rights it would have been perfect.

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  5. tom p says:

    “Hardly surprising considering the “blind eye” they turned to their own such actions.”

    I really expected more from ZR and company…. I guess even they cannot deny the truth.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  6. tom p says:

    and yeah Steve P, I mean you.

    “These leaks have not served society much at all but have attempted to damage the US. Anyone involved should be prosecuted at the first opportunity.”

    ………………………………………your idiocy leaves me speechless.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  7. mike says:

    I guess I just assumed that our allies tortured prisoners and we turned a blind eye so this is not surprising – sad, but not surprising

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