By David Gardner
A top secret video showing U.S. soldiers laughing as they launch a helicopter air strike that killed 12 Iraqi civilians – including two journalists – has been leaked.
In the 17-minute black-and-white footage taken from an Apache helicopter gunsight, the pilots can be heard discussing the carnage as if they were playing a video war game.
The victims included Reuters photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen, 22, and his assistant and driver Saeed Chmagh, 40, who were killed in the incident.
The gritty film was posted online last night by Wikileaks – a website that encourages whistleblowers to expose government and corporate cover-ups – in defiance of a Pentagon ban.
Although it’s existence has been known since shortly after the July 12, 2007 attack all attempts to make it public have been rebuffed by the U.S. Defence Department.
Major Shawn Turner, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, said an investigation of the incident shortly after it occurred found that U.S. forces were not aware of the presence of the journalists and thought they were engaging armed insurgents.
‘We regret the loss of innocent life, but this incident was promptly investigated and there was never any attempt to cover up any aspect of this engagement,’ Turner said.
‘The gathering at the corner that is fired up on has about nine people in it,’ WikiLeaks spokesman Julian Assange told reporters at the National Press Club in Washington yesterday.
The gunsight tracks two of the men as the helicopter crews identify their cameras as weapons.
Military spokesman Turner said that during the engagement, the helicopter mistook a camera for a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.
After strafing the men with a machine gun, one crewman shouts: ‘Ha-ha. I hit ’em.’
A few seconds later, another American said: ‘Oh yeah, look at those dead b******s.’
One survivor, identified on the video as Chmaigh, can be seen crawling towards a courtyard to safety.
A voice can be heard urging the wounded man to pick up a gun so that under the rules of engagement he can open fire again.
‘All you gotta do is pick up a weapon,’ he says.
When a van pulls up in what appears to be an attempt to get one of the survivors to hospital, an Apache opens fire again.
One man chuckles as a colleague says: ‘Look at that. Right through the windshield.’
The Americans later discover that two children in the van are among the injured.
‘Well it’s their fault for bringing kids in to a battle,’ says one.
Later, an American Humvee arrives and appears to roll over one of the dead. ‘I think they just drove over a body,’ one of the pilots says, chuckling a little.
Reuters said at the time that the two men had been working on a report about weightlifting when they heard about a military raid in the east Baghdad neighbourhood, and decided to drive there to check it out.
‘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,’ Reuters wrote in 2008.
‘It is believed two or three of these men may have been carrying weapons, although witnesses said none were assuming a hostile posture at the time.’
WikiLeaks said it acquired encrypted video of the 2007, attack from military whistleblowers and had been able to view and investigate it after breaking the encryption code.
Reuters has pressed the U.S. military to conduct a full and objective investigation into the killing of the two staff.
Video of the incident and photographs taken of the scene were shown to Reuters editors in Baghdad on July 25, 2007 in an off-the-record briefing.
Wikileaks spokesman Julian Assange refuted U.S. military claims that the attack was justified.
At the time, the Pentagon said the helicopters were engaged in combat operations against a hostile force.
‘I believe that if those killings were lawful under the rules of engagement, then the rules of engagement are wrong, deeply wrong,’ he said.
The fliers in the video act ‘like they are playing a computer game and their desire is they want to get high scores’ by killing opponents, he said.
Wikileaks said it plans to release a second classified military video showing the deaths of more civilians in another US attack in Afghanistan.