WASHINGTON, Apr 6 (IPS) – Journalist advocacy groups called for the reopening of an investigation into the 2007 killing of a Reuters photographer and his driver after the WikiLeaks website released classified video footage on Monday of a 2007 helicopter attack in Baghdad which killed 12 people.
“This footage is deeply disturbing,” said Joel Simon, executive director of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
“The video also confirms our long-held view that a thorough and transparent investigation into this incident is urgently needed,” Simon added.
The video shows the camera feed from an Apache helicopter gun ship as it performs an air strike on a group of men milling around an empty Baghdad street.
The video also shows the helicopter fire on a van which arrived at the scene and was attempting to evacuate the only visible survivor of the first attack. The attack wounded two children who were inside the vehicle.
Among those killed were Reuters photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen, 22, and his driver, Saeed Chmagh, 40.
WikiLeaks’ website states that it goes “to great lengths to verify the authenticity of the information it receives,” and has “analysed the information about this incident from a variety of source material.” The New York Times confirmed with a senior military official that the footage was authentic.
In a statement released after the incident, Reuters said that its photographer and his driver “had gone to the area after hearing of a military raid on a building around dawn that day, and were with a group of men at the time. It is believed two or three of these men may have been carrying weapons, although witnesses said none were assuming a hostile posture.”
“There had been reports of clashes between U.S. forces and insurgents in the area but there was no fighting on the streets in which Namir was moving about with a group of men,” said the statement.
Some analysts believe this incident raises important questions about the U.S. military’s rules of engagement.
“The video appears to depict a case of confirmation bias by the American helicopter pilots,” wrote Christopher Albon, a security analyst who blogs about armed conflict and public health on conflicthealth.com.
“Confirmation bias is the tendency of the human mind to unconsciously prefer information reinforcing existing beliefs. In this case, the fact the pilots were looking for armed insurgents made them predisposed to believe that any item carried by the persons were weapons,” Albon continued.
The footage appears to contravene earlier reports by military officials on the day of the attack which stated that U.S. forces had been engaged by a group of insurgents with small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades during a raid, causing them to return fire and call in air support.
“There is no question that coalition forces were clearly engaged in combat operations against a hostile force,” Lt. Col. Scott Bleichwehl, a spokesman for the multinational forces in Baghdad, said to the New York Times after the attack.
The video is released in two versions on the Wikileaks website, one unedited 38-minute long version and one edited 17-minute version with added text and commentary surrounding the incident.
Both versions of the video contain subtitles of the conversation between helicopter pilots and other military personnel as they stalk the group of men and await permission to shoot at them.
The pilots are heard joking about their kills, chuckling and making sarcastic commentary such as. “Ah, yeah, look at those dead bastards. Nice,” and “Look at that. Right through the windshield,” after shooting the van that came to rescue the wounded from the first strike
But after U.S. ground forces arrive and find wounded children in the van the helicopter attacked, the helicopter pilots blame the Iraqis.
“Well it’s their fault for bringing kids into a battle,” says one.
“That’s right,” says another.
“I know that two children were hurt, and we did everything we could to help them. I don’t know how the children got hurt,” Maj. Brent Cummings, the executive officer of the battalion who launched the attack, told the Washington Post after the incident.
Though the U.S. military opened an inquiry into the incident, some advocates do not believe it has been adequately thorough.
Clothilde Le Coz, Washington director of Reporters Without Borders USA (RSF), told IPS that the group will “urge the Pentagon to be more transparent and call on the Obama administration to show its commitment to justice by officially releasing the video as well as key elements of the case.”
According to RSF, since March of 2003, 221 journalists and related staff have been killed in Iraq.
“The deaths of Namir Noor-Eldeen and Saeed Chmagh three years ago were tragic and emblematic of the extreme dangers that exist in covering war zones,” said David Schlesinger, editor-in-chief of Reuters news.
“The video released today via Wikileaks is graphic evidence of the dangers involved in war journalism and the tragedies that can result,” added the Reuters chief.