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Secret Iraq war files offer grim new details

By Greg Miller and Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, October 23, 2010; 12:33 AM

A massive cache of secret U.S. field reports from the Iraq war provides grim new details about the toll of that conflict, indicating that more than 100,000 Iraqis were killed during a six-year stretch and that American forces often failed to intervene as the U.S.-backed government brutalized detainees, according to news organizations given access to the documents by the WikiLeaks Web site.

The nearly 400,000 records are described as offering a chilling, pointillist view of the war's peak years, documenting thousands of civilian deaths - including hundreds killed at checkpoints manned by U.S. soldiers - and the burgeoning role that American contractors came to play in the conflict.

But the logs are perhaps most disturbing in their portrayal of the Iraqi government that has taken control of security in the country as U.S. forces withdraw.

The documents, including some dated as recently as 2009, report the deaths of at least six detainees in Iraqi custody because of abuse, and cite hundreds of other cases in which prisoners were subjected to electric shock, sodomized, burned, whipped or beaten by Iraqi authorities, according to an account in the Guardian, a British newspaper that was among several news organizations given advance access to the logs.

The others included the New York Times, the Qatar-based al-Jazeera satellite television network, Germany's Der Spiegel magazine, the French newspaper Le Monde and the Channel 4 news program in Britain. WikiLeaks, an anti-secrecy group that uses servers in several countries, published the records on its Web site (WikiLeaks.org) Friday evening.

There appear to be no major revelations in the latest logs. Much like those WikiLeaks released earlier this year on the war in Afghanistan, the Iraq documents are mainly low-level field reports that reflect a soldier's-eye view of the conflict but do not contain the most sensitive secrets held by U.S. forces or intelligence agencies.

The Pentagon condemned the release but did not question the authenticity of the files.

"We deplore WikiLeaks for inducing individuals to break the law, leak classified documents and then cavalierly share that secret information with the world, including our enemies," said Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell. He said the military would not comment on the information contained in the records but stressed that the "reports are initial, raw observations by tactical units. They are essentially snapshots of events, both tragic and mundane, and do not tell the whole story."

Even so, the spilling of so many once-secret files into public view allows for a fine-grained examination of the war. The 391,832 files included in the release cover a period from the beginning of 2004 to the end of 2009, and are more than quadruple the number of records that WikiLeaks published on the war in Afghanistan.

WikiLeaks has not disclosed the source of the materials. But suspicion has centered on Pfc. Bradley Manning, 22, an Army intelligence analyst whom the military arrested this year, charging him with the downloading and transfer of classified material.

Although narrow in nature, the records provide new insights into the toll of the conflict. According to al-Jazeera, the documents show that the U.S. military kept a tally of Iraqi casualties, even while insisting that such statistics were not maintained.

The files indicate that 285,000 casualties were recorded, including at least 109,032 violent deaths, although reports suggested some double-counting. Of those, 66,081 were civilians, 23,984 were "enemy," 15,196 were members of the Iraqi security forces, and 3,771 were U.S. and allied service members.

The numbers correspond roughly to figures released by the Pentagon this year in response to a Freedom of Information Act request submitted by the Associated Press. Iraq Body Count, a London-based organization that has tracked civilian casualties, said it had identified 15,000 previously unrecorded deaths in the newly released files.

Beyond the broad outlines of the casualty counts, the records offer glimpses of the circumstances in often-heartbreaking detail.

The logs document the killing of as many as 681 civilians at checkpoints - "escalation of force incidents" in the military parlance - where troops fearing suicide bombers opened fire on often-confused drivers who did not know how to act when approaching soldiers, especially at night.

The Guardian reported that in September 2005, near Musayyib, south of Baghdad, two U.S. soldiers opened fire on a car when it continued to approach them after the driver ignored flashing lights and warning shots. A man and his wife were killed, and their 9- and 6-year-old children were wounded.

A month later, again at night, two children were killed in Baghdad when a female driver continued to approach a checkpoint after a single warning shot was fired.

The files also record the bloody toll of soldiers and civilians killed by insurgents' increasingly sophisticated use of roadside bombs: 31,780 deaths were attributed to improvised explosive devices.

The logs record numerous and often horrifying instances of torture and abuse by Iraqi military and police forces, many of which U.S. troops chose to ignore because of orders to refer such matters to senior Iraqi officers, according to the Guardian's reading of the documents.

In one case, in August 2009, a U.S. military doctor found "bruises and burns as well as visible injuries to the head, arm, torso, legs and neck" on the body of a man that police said killed himself.

In another case, in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, coalition forces reported that three Iraqi officers poured acid on the hands of a man and cut off some of his fingers. Two years after the event no arrests had been made, according to one of the documents.

The logs do record attempts by U.S. and coalition forces to stop the abuse by conducting spot-checks on Iraqi facilities where they found prisoners "covered in injuries," the Guardian reported.

But U.S. soldiers often could do little more than demand that the torture stop. An order, issued in June 2004, instructed troops to make an initial report but not to investigate breaches of the laws of war "unless directed by HQ," according to documents cited by al-Jazeera and the Guardian.

The records do not represent the first time that abuses by Iraqi authorities have been disclosed. In November 2005, U.S. troops discovered a Ministry of Interior-run prison in which more than 150 Sunni inmates were being held without charges. The prisoners were emaciated and several lifted up their shirts to show bloody whip marks where they had been beaten, according to U.S. officials who took photographs of the facility. News of the facility was leaked to U.S. and Iraqi newspapers, and U.S. commanders confronted then- Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari about the facility. No punitive action was taken.

In 2007, Gen. David H. Petraeus, then the top commander in Iraq, put pressure on the Interior Ministry to replace virtually all of the battalion and brigade commanders in the Iraqi National Police, a force that had been repeatedly accused of killing and torturing Sunnis in Baghdad.

Revelations about rampant state-sanctioned torture could shape the political debate in Iraq amid protracted negotiations toward the formation of a government. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is attempting to hold on to his post but has failed to get a simple majority in parliament on his side.

The logs accuse Iran of providing extensive, lethal support to Shiite militias in Iraq as part of an effort to weaken the standing of Sunnis in government and engage in a proxy campaign against the United States. The New York Times cited documents indicating that Iran's Quds Force collaborated with Iraqi extremists to encourage the assassination of Iraqi officials.

But some of news reports treated the claims with skepticism. The Guardian noted that sources for some of the reports on Iran were described as "untested or of low reliability."

WikiLeaks was founded in 2006 by a former computer hacker, Julian Assange. In contrast to the release of the Afghan documents, WikiLeaks redacted names and locations in what members said was a step to ensure there was no chance of exposing Iraqi civilians to reprisal.

The organization has undergone stresses of late. Several members have left in recent months, citing differences with Assange and the direction of the group. Assange is facing allegations in Sweden of rape and sexual harassment, which he has denied, saying the charges are part of a U.S.-orchestrated smear campaign.

millergreg@washpost.com finnp@washpost.com

Correspondent Ernesto Londono in Baghdad and staff writers Ellen Nakashima and Greg Jaffe and staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.

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