WikiLeaks documents give Iraqis a fuller picture of war
To the Iraqis who were there, the revelations from the WikiLeaks organization that the war they lived through was brutal and bloody have hardly come as a surprise.
Americans carelessly opened fire at checkpoints when Iraqis failed to stop. Militias and insurgents roamed the streets, randomly killing members of the other sect. Iraqi security forces rounded up suspects at will and tortured them. Iran infiltrated, armed and influenced the Shiite Muslim militias responsible for thousands of the deaths.
“We know all these things, and more,” Najah Lokon, 33, said. “These revelations don’t tell us very much.”
Lokon lost 17 members of his extended family to sectarian killings in 2006, all of them targeted because they were Sunnis living in Shiite neighborhoods.
“It was war,” he said. “What do you expect?”
The release of 391,832 classified documents Friday on the website of the whistle-blowing WikiLeaks has refocused attention on the enormity of the violence unleashed by the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Although they contained no surprises for most Iraqis, the documents contained previously undisclosed figures, such as the 109,032 people estimated by the U.S. military to have died in the war through the end of 2009, including 66,081 civilians and 15,196 members of the Iraqi security forces.
The figure is slightly lower than estimates previously released by the Iraqi government, which put the number of Iraqi civilian and security force casualties at 85,694 from January 2004 to October 2008. American officials have frequently repudiated the Iraqi numbers as too high, while maintaining that the U.S. military did not keep track of civilian casualties.
The military also had not released the number of civilians killed at checkpoints by U.S. forces in so-called escalation of force incidents. According to Al Jazeera TV, one of five news organizations given advance access to the leaked documents, 680 civilians were killed by U.S. forces after failing to stop at roadblocks.
What has emerged is a picture of a U.S. military that knew more than it was prepared to acknowledge at the time about the scale of the sectarian killings that raged from 2005 to 2007, and abuses by Iraqi security forces, and frequently chose to ignore them.
“It’s very strange that the Americans knew all about this, the torture, the killing, the behavior of the police, but they didn’t do anything about it,” said Falah Naqib, a lawmaker with the mostly Sunni Iraqiya bloc, headed by Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite. “Most Iraqis know all this information. For us, it’s not something new.”
The revelations have also played into the complex political negotiations taking place for the formation of a new Iraqi government, more than seven months after elections failed to produce a conclusive result.
Members of Iraqiya seized on the reports of the Iraqi security forces’ involvement in abuse during the tenure of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki as evidence that he should be denied a second term in office.
“Maliki’s opponents are trying to take advantage of this,” political analyst Ibrahim Sumaidi said. “It could damage his chances to be the prime minister again.”
In response, Maliki’s office issued a lengthy statement urging Iraqis to focus on the details of U.S. abuses illuminated by the documents and to reject allegations against the Iraqi government and security forces.
The release of the documents “raises questions about the timing of their publication,” the statement said.
“We are confident that Iraqis know who they picked as leader, and despite all the fuss, these [media] establishments … didn’t submit one single piece of evidence about anything unethical the Iraqi government or its leader did,” it said. “These allegations won’t shake the people’s confidence in him.”
The allegations come at a delicate moment in the negotiations. Maliki has emerged as the most likely candidate to head the next government, after securing the support of the faction backed by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, as well as the endorsement of Iran.
The United States is also backing Maliki, but wants him to lead in an alliance with the Iraqiya faction.
At a news conference in London, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said the purpose behind the leaks was to reveal the truth about the Iraq war.
“We hope to correct some of that attack on the truth that occurred before the war, during the war and which has continued since the war,” he said.
But the Pentagon has criticized the publication of the documents, saying they could make U.S. troops more vulnerable to attacks.
Times staff writer Raheem Salman and Jabr Zeki in The Times’ Baghdad Bureau contributed to this report.