'I Think They're Rocket Launchers'

By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 7, 2007

LONDON, Feb. 6 -- A dramatic cockpit recording leaked to a British newspaper captures two American pilots reacting in horror and disbelief after one of them mistakenly fired on a convoy of British armored vehicles in Iraq. Told that an allied soldier has died, a pilot is heard saying, "I'm going to be sick" and "We're in jail, dude."

The friendly-fire incident that killed Lance Cpl. Matty Hull, 25, occurred on March 28, 2003, eight days into the Iraq invasion, but the recording was made public only Tuesday by the Sun newspaper. The U.S. government had declined to declassify it. But recently a British coroner investigating the corporal's death demanded that the recording, a cockpit video, be presented as evidence, suspending his proceedings until it was produced.

In Britain, where the Iraq war is highly unpopular, the video caused an uproar with its vivid depiction of an attack that some people here say could have been avoided. Hull's family has expressed anger over his death.

Hours after the video was posted to the Sun's Web site and clips were aired on British television, the Pentagon said it would release the recording to the coroner and the family. Des Browne, the British defense secretary, welcomed the decision, saying, "The release of classified information, even for the closest of allies, is never straightforward, but this is the right thing to do."

While there have been numerous friendly-fire incidents, the U.S. government rarely releases video and audio recordings related to them. "If you show certain tactics and capabilities, of course your enemy can see it, too," said Air Force Lt. Col. Teresa Connor, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Central Command.

The Sun said there had been a half-million downloads of the recording by late afternoon.

The 15-minute video shows the view forward from the cockpit of an A-10 Thunderbolt attack jet, as well as computerized flight data. Its audio track includes the voices of the jet's pilot, the pilot of another A-10 flying in tandem, the voices of several U.S. ground controllers and the sounds of the attacking aircraft's guns.

The two pilots are heard asking a ground controller if there are any friendly troops in the area near Basra where they are patrolling. The answer comes back: "You are well clear of friendlies."

Because of mistaken attacks in past conflicts, friendly vehicles advancing into Iraq were being marked by orange panels visible from the sky.

One of the U.S. pilots who has spotted a convoy of vehicles remarks: "They got something orange on top of them." Later, he says, "I think they're rocket launchers."

One of the jets strafes the vehicles with rapid-fire cannons, then stages a second attack. Shortly afterward, another ground controller is heard telling the pilots: "You have friendly armor in the area."

The pilots are told to abort the mission and, audibly upset and using profane language, are heard asking for word on the condition of the men on the ground whom they have just attacked.

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