openSecurity

Leaked video shows US gunships killing Iraqi civilians

WikiLeaks website posts video showing US helicopter attack on journalists and civilians. Obama to announce overhaul of US nuclear strategy. Maoist rebels kill over 70 police in India. Deadly series of bomb attacks rock Baghdad. All this and much more, in today’s security briefing.
Dries Belet
6 April 2010

A classified US military video, showing an Apache helicopter strafing Iraqi civilians in Baghdad, was leaked yesterday. In the footage, which was posted on WikiLeaks.org, a US air crew can be seen firing upon a dozen or so Iraqis, including journalists and children, after mistaking the civilians’ cameras for weapons. The graphic video from July 2007, accompanied by the military’s audio transmissions, shocks due to the pilots’ trigger-happy attitude. “All right, haha, I hit ‘em”, one crewman shouts, followed a little later by another’s response, “Oh, yeah, look at those dead bastards”.

WikiLeaks, a whistleblowers’ website that posts leaked documents online, says the video is authentic, decrpyted footage from the camera of the helicopter involved the incident. WikiLeaks has not revealed its source, but Reuters and the Associated Press obtained confirmations from anonymous US military officials that the recording is genuine.

Two of the victims, Saeed Cmagh and Namir Noor-Eldeen, were Iraqi journalists employed by Reuters. After the initital air attack, the video shows a van drawing up next to a wounded man crawling on the sidewalk, who seems to be Cmagh. Next, unarmed Iraqis climb out and pick up the man in an apparent attempt to get him to safety, however the Apache resumes fire on the group of people and on the van. “Oh yea, look at that,” a crewmember says, “Right through the windshield. Haha.” When US ground troops arrive, they discover two wounded children in the minivan. “It’s their fault for bringing their kids into a battle”, a voice adds.

Reuters news editor-in-chief David Schlesinger has stated the video is “graphic evidence of the dangers involved in war journalism and the tragedies that can result”. Reuters has demanded that the US military conduct a full investigation into the incident. Previously, the Pentagon had blocked an attempt by Reuters to get hold of the video via a freedom of information request. In total, a sum of 139 journalists, nearly 120 of them Iraqis, have been killed in the war from 2003 to 2009, according to the Committee To Protect Journalists.

After the attack, the US military said its helicopters had been engaged in combat operations against a hostile force. Julian Assange, the editor of WikiLeaks, said he does not agree with the US military’s assessment that the attack was justified. Assange accused the pilots involved of acting “like in a videogame, with a desire to get high scores by killing people”. WikiLeaks stated it has other videos in its possession, indetailing similar incidents in Afghanistan, which it plans to publish in the future.

The openSecurity verdict: The incident raises serious questions about the US military’s rules of engagement. A key question is whether the video represents an isolated event that was tragic but very exceptional, or whether the actions and attitudes of the pilots are more commonplace. During the strafing run in the video, US rules of engagement were clearly inadequate, leading to the death of a dozen unarmed civilians due to US troops mistaking camera equipment for AK-47’s and RPG’s. In this instance, the military’s rules for opening fire clearly did not restrain the wild use of airpower.

The attack took place in 2007, after the start of the US troop surge. At the time, the situation in Iraq was critical for the American military, with daily casualty rates for troops and civilians well above their present levels. The Apache helicopter was patrolling the streets of the New Baghdad neighbourhood, were the fighting was worst and several helicopters had been shot down before.

However, this argument does not account for the pilots’ mindset, which is shown to be very disturbing. The cheerful and light-hearted way in which the US crewmen talk about killing a group of Iraqis indicates, as Julian Assange has called it, a sort of corruption of the soldiers by war itself. “All you gotta do is pick up a weapon,” they can be heard exhorting a wounded man lying on the ground with no weapon in sight, their desire clearly being to finish him off. Should it emerge that the pilots had been taking amphetamines prior to the operation, as most USAF pilots do, the US military will have to again defend its stance on the proscription of these controversial stimulants. These kind of savage attitudes and aggressive gaming of the rules of engagement open an unsettling window on the soldiers’ minds.

A thorough official investigation into the accident is called for. Accusations have come from several quarters about a cover-up of the attack by the Pentagon, and if US leaders do not want to suffer an international public image fall-out, they would do well to support an objective investigation. The footage could stimulate an intensive debate about the military’s rules of engagement, and their impact on the US’s reputation around the world, in particular in the middle-east and the Islamic world.

Finally, the US authorities that have put WikiLeaks under “aggressive and intensive” surveillance should respect the first amendment of their own constitution. Even though authorities might be seriously inconvenienced by the publication of this kind of sensitive material, they need to recognize the freedom of the press; attempts at further suppression are unlikely to go unnoticed and will only tarnish the reputation of the US military and government further.

Obama to announce overhaul of US nuclear strategy

US President Barack Obama is set to announce a new US nuclear strategy today. He is expected to significantly curtail the circumstances underwhich the US would use nuclear weapons and renounce the development of new nuclear armaments.

In an interview with The New York Times, Obama said the new strategy would rule out nuclear retaliation against attacks involving conventional, biological, and chemical weapons. In addition, the US would commit to never use nukes against non-nuclear countries that adhere to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. However, the president added that he would make an exception for “outliers like Iran and North Korea” that have violated or rejected the Treaty.

The Obama administration’s Nuclear Posture Review is scheduled to be announced two days before the president goes to Prague to sign a new arms reduction treaty with Russia. The new American policy has connected the reduction of its nuclear stockpile with its longstanding desire to halt nuclear proliferation and prevent terrorists from obtaining nuclear weapons. The focus will be on “isolating countries that are flouting their obligations under the pact” (the Non-Proliferation Treaty), a senior White House official told CNN.

Obama is walking a tightrope between different factions in American politics. Conservatives accuse Obama of undermining national security, alleging that the limited circumstances for the use of nuclear weapons would weaken nuclear deterrence capabilities. Some liberals, on the other hand, think the president is not going far enough, and would like to see the nuclear first-strike option completely renounced.

Maoist rebels kill over 70 police in India

At least 73 Indian paramilitary officers were killed today in an ambush by Maoist rebels. The police force was attacked by guerrilla fighters setting off explosives and firing from a series of hilltops around a dense forest in central India, officials say.

The ambush on the paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force in the Dantewade district is the deadliest attack in years. “Something has gone very wrong”, India’s home minister said, stating it seemed the CRPF forces had “walked” straight into an ambush.

The Maoists have gained traction across remote areas of India’s neglected tribal belt. The local population in the Chhattisgarh region is impoverished and disgruntled about its social marginalisation. Rebel forces commit regular attacks on economic targets such as railways and factories located in the remote mining areas of India. Recently, the Indian security forces have launched a renewed, 50,000-troop strong offensive in several states against the rebels.

Deadly series of bomb attacks rock Baghdad

On Tuesday seven separate explosions struck the centre of Baghdad, killing at least 39 people and wounding over 130 others. The bomb blasts, which follow several other violent attacks in the last few days, raise fears of Iraq descending again into sectarian violence. Militant attacks have spiked in the power vacuum that resulted after last month’s election failed to deliver a clear winner.

Seven separate explosions occurred in mainly Shiite parts of Baghdad’s residential neighbourhoods, demolishing entire apartment blocks. On Sunday, suicide car bombs killed at least 40 people near three embassies, Iraqi officials say, while last Friday 24 people were shot as attackers in military uniforms assaulted a village south of the capital.

The post-election political manoeuvring to get together a governing coalition is expected to take weeks or months. Meanwhile, extremist groups take advantage of the chaotic situation to undermine the Iraqi state and create instability. Iraqis fear a return to violence on the levels of 2005-2006, when political deadlock and sectarian violence led the country to the brink of an all-out civil war.

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