Leaked Video Depicts Civilian Deaths In Iraq

In July of 2007, American soldiers killed 12 Iraqis, including civilians and a journalist, in an airstrike. A leaked video raises new questions about the incident — and about how the video reached the Web. Washington Post reporter David Finkel, who chronicled the airstrike in his book The Good Soldiers, describes what he saw that day in Baghdad.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

On July 17, 2007, soldiers circling over Eastern Baghdad in an Apache gunship helicopter saw s group of men in a courtyard carrying what looked like weapons: AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades. U.S. ground troops had been under fire nearby. The soldiers called in the sighting.

(Soundbite of video)

Unidentified Man #1: Hotel Two-Six and Crazy Horse One-Eight have five to six individuals with AK-47s. Request permission to engage.

Unidentified Man #2: Roger that. We have no personnel east of our position. So you are free to engage, over.

CONAN: After they secured permission a few minutes later, the soldiers opened fire.

(Soundbite of video)

Unidentified Man #1: Come on, fire.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

Unidentified Man #3: Roger.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

Unidentified Man #1: Keep shooting.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

Unidentified Man #1: Keeping shooting.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

Unidentified Man #4: Bushmaster, Two-Six. Bushmaster, Two-Six. We need to move, time now.

Unidentified Man #1: All right. We just engaged all eight individuals.

CONAN: In total, 12 people were killed before that airstrike was over. At least two of them, it turns out, were not brandishing weapons. One man, a photographer for Reuters, carried a camera slung over his shoulder. Another man with a cell phone was his driver. Yesterday, a Web site called WikiLeaks leaked the confidential video of that airstrike, which they say they got from a military whistleblower.

David Finkel, national enterprise editor of The Washington Post, spent a better part of 15 months with a battalion of U.S. Army Rangers starting in 2007, and he wrote about that airstrike and the video in his most recent book, "The Good Soldiers." You can find a link to the video and an excerpt from the book at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And David Finkel joins us now from a studio at the newspaper's headquarters here in Washington. And thanks very much for being with us today.

Mr. DAVID FINKEL (Washington Post): Hi, Neal. How are you?

CONAN: I'm well, thanks. Where were you on that day?

Mr. FINKEL: I was it was actually two corrections. It was July 12, 2007.

CONAN: Oh, I apologize.

Mr. FINKEL: And the guys I was with, writing the book about, they weren't Army Rangers - that was their nickname - but it was an infantry battalion. And where they were that day was where I was that day. They were out on an operation to secure a part of eastern Baghdad from which they had been taking receiving a lot of gunfire.

And they had a lot of injuries all through the month of June. Four of these guys have died, some guys were missing arms, missing legs, missing eyes. It had been a bad month. And July was shaping up to be the same way, and this was an operation to try to for these folks to try to gain control of that part of eastern Baghdad...

CONAN: Which was a tough part of the city.

Mr. FINKEL: It was. And on the very eastern edge, which had the worst of the fighting, I was about I was in the center part of the operation. But on the very eastern edge, which had the very worst of the fighting, in came these two guys from Reuters, and then the video many of us have seen showed what happened next.

CONAN: You saw that video before most of us did.

Mr. FINKEL: Well, I based my account on the book on a lot of information, all of it unclassified. Most of it was based on just being present that day, if that's a fair answer.

CONAN: Okay. But having read your book and listened to the tape that we got today, it's verbatim, some of the quotes in your book from the video.

Mr. FINKEL: Yes, they match up.

CONAN: The match up perfectly, all right. Let's just leave it there. In any case, so you were with the unit that was taking fire, and I imagine very happy to get air support.

Mr. FINKEL: Well, this these the Apache helicopters were from a different unit. They were the air support over it was something like 240 soldiers, 65 Humvees, a couple of Bradley Fighting Vehicles, and they spread out over this area called Al-Amin. And to the western part of it, you know, it was a pretty calm day, and the soldiers doing clearances in the houses over there had a very easy time of it.

In the middle where I was, a good bit of gunfire and a mosque that was searched, and lot, lots of weapons that came out of the mosque. And as that happened, all of a sudden the sky just seemed to almost jerk and split open from this unbelievable noise.

CONAN: Hmm.

Mr. FINKEL: It was the Apache gunships beginning to fire down to the ground, and then it became evident as the day went on what really had happened.

CONAN: And those - the sounds that you hear on that video, that is nothing like what that 30-millimeter chain gun sounds in real life.

Mr. FINKEL: No, but I can tell you, just hearing it over headphones, it's difficult to hear. It's difficult to watch that video. And I should point out the video that people are able to see on YouTube or at WikiLeaks is an edited version of a much longer video that shows many more things, including, at the beginning, which I didn't see on the Web when I looked at it this morning, you do see a group of guys walking down the street, one of whom has an RPG launcher. In fact, at the end, after the dust settled and all this horribleness finally settled down a bit, one of the bodies was found on top of an RPG launcher and EOD, I guess that would be "The Hurt Locker" guys...

CONAN: That's right.

Mr. FINKEL: ...basically had to come in and clear the area.

CONAN: Explosives ordnance...

Mr. FINKEL: Yeah.

CONAN: And as you looked at this, obviously, emotions were high at the time. You mentioned people taking a lot of losses at the time. This was, of course, during the surge. And this was a very bad time for all sides in Baghdad. Nevertheless, these journalists - and nobody knew they were there. They were working independently. They weren't embedded with anybody. They were with a group of people who were carrying weapons.

Mr. FINKEL: Some were, most weren't, but it was - you know, what I - one of the reasons I'm happy to talk about this today and I'm grateful for the chance is to provide a little context to that video. I certainly don't want to judge the soldiers, excuse them or vilify them in any way. But I do think it's worth pointing it out that they - these guys, the Reuters guys walked into the hottest spot of a very hot morning. There had been running gun battles. There had been a lot of RPG, grenade fire and so on, and they were doing what journalists do. They heard about something, they came to it and they just wanted - from everything I've learned since, they were just there to get that side of the story.

CONAN: Can you understand the pain of their families upon seeing these videos at long last because they've been pressing for them - Reuters had been pressing for their release and saying how could those helicopter pilots not see that my son was carrying a camera?

Mr. FINKEL: Sure, sure. I can't imagine what it would be like to see - to be them, to be those families, and suddenly, this video pops up and - but it would be unimaginable. It's - I wasn't up in the helicopters. I think that's fair to say. They were at a good distance. I'm not quite sure how clear their monitors are. I was told they are only a few inches wide. We're hearing basically intercom chatter. It's not like clear radio chatter. Nonetheless, here came a group of guys, and one of the things they sighted on that led to the first burst of fire was an RPG launcher that turned out to be a telephoto lens hanging around a guy's neck.

CONAN: Sometimes you see what you think you see.

Let me read you the relevant portion of your book. This is from page 104. This is after that night of the - you'd returned back with the soldiers you were with.

They had looked at photographs taken by soldiers that showed AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenade launchers next to the dead Iraqis. They had gotten the video and audio recordings from the Apaches and had reviewed them several times. They had reviewed everything they could about what had prefaced the killings in east Al-Amin, in other words, that the soldiers were being shot at, that they didn't know journalists were there, that the journalists were in a group of men carrying weapons, that the Apache crew had followed the rules of engagement when it fired at the men with weapons at the journalists and at the van with the children inside and had concluded that everyone had acted properly.

Then you ask, had the journalists? And you ask, you state, that would be for others to decide.

Mr. FINKEL: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: And do you stand by those conclusions today?

Mr. FINKEL: Well, the conclusions in that previous graph, it's kind of - it's funny when you hear your writing read back to you, you realize how wandering it can be. Those were the conclusions of the soldiers who looked it into that day. That's all I was trying to get across.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. FINKEL: And had they acted appropriately? It's for others to decide, who weren't the soldiers acting that day, just like had the journalists behaved properly, it was for others to decide as well.

CONAN: Your book is about a lot of situations that are extremely dangerous, where young men are forced to react very quickly and are responding with incredibly lethal weaponry. This just seems like another afternoon of war.

Mr. FINKEL: Well, it was a bad afternoon of war. It wasn't just another one. It wasn't the worst day that I was witness to. It was one of them, but, I mean, you know yourself there aren't terribly many good days in a war.

CONAN: No.

Mr. FINKEL: And this was a bad day both for Americans and for Iraqis.

CONAN: Is there anything in retrospect that could have been handled differently, that things might have not had turned out the same way?

Mr. FINKEL: Well, that's a great question. And what could it be? An operation took place - and it was an operation with merit because it was preceded by soldiers just getting banged up all over the place, and they had to do something about it. And the operation was planned thoroughly for days and days. And out they went, and, you know, you know yourself the planning is the best part of it and everything just...

CONAN: Sure. Falls apart from there.

Mr. FINKEL: ...in war, tends to fall apart from there.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. FINKEL: And here came some guys walking down the street, one with a launcher, one - at least one with an AK, and in the middle of them were two guys, one of whom had something long hanging around his neck. And there was no word to the soldiers that journalists were going to be there. On the other hand - well, it's all on the other hand, isn't it?

CONAN: Yeah. Yeah, it is. And there is no way to go back and change any of that. And would you expect at this point that the Army is going to go back and revisit the situation?

Mr. FINKEL: You know, I wonder. I've not heard anything one way or the other. There's certainly a lot of publicity, but they were aware of it at the time. They did their investigation. They thought they did a credible investigation, and there are always people who are going to think that the military is not capable of investigating itself. So, yeah, I suspect, especially because of the video. And it's just so disturbing in so many ways that this will go on.

CONAN: David Finkel, thanks very much for you time today. Appreciate it.

Mr. FINKEL: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: David Finkel, national enterprise editor for The Washington Post, author of "The Good Soldiers" - that's the book that we were reading from. He joined us today from a studio at the newspaper's headquarters. You can find an excerpt - that excerpt, as it turns out - from "The Good Soldiers" about what happened on that July 12 on our Web site at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. There's also a link to the video that we have been talking about as well.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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Excerpt: 'The Good Soldiers'

Cover of 'The Good Soldiers'
The Good Soldiers
By David Finkel
Hardcover, 304 pages
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
List price: $26.00

One minute and fifty-five seconds before the first burst, the two crew members in one of the circling Apaches had noticed some men on a street on Al-Amin's eastern edge.

"See all those people standing down there?" one asked.

"Confirmed," said the other crew member. "That open courtyard?"

"Roger," said the first.

Everything the crew members in both Apaches were saying was being recorded. So were their communications with the 2-16. To avoid confusion, anyone talking identified himself with a code word. The crew members in the lead Apache, for example, were Crazy Horse 1-8. The 2-16 person they were communicating with most frequently was Hotel 2-6. There was a visual recording of what they were seeing as well, and what they were seeing now — one minute and forty seconds before they fired their first burst — were some men walking along the middle of a street, several of whom appeared to be carrying weapons.

All morning long, this part of Al-Amin had been the most hostile. While Tyler Andersen had been under a shade tree in west Al-Amin, and Kauzlarich had dealt with occasional gunfire in the center part, east Al-Amin had been filled with gunfire and some explosions. There had been reports of sniper fire, rooftop chases, and rocket-propelled grenades being fired at Bravo Company, and as the fighting continued, it attracted the

attention of Namir Noor-Eldeen, a twenty-two-year-old photographer for the Reuters news agency who lived in Baghdad, and Saeed Chmagh, forty, his driver and assistant.

Some journalists covering the war did so by embedding with the U.S. military. Others worked independently. Noor-Eldeen and Chmagh were among those who worked independently, which meant that the military didn't know they were in Al-Amin. The 2-16 didn't know, and neither did the crews of the Apaches, which were flying high above Al-Amin in a slow, counter-clockwise circle. From that height, the crews could see all

of east Al-Amin, but the optics in the lead Apache were now focused tightly on Noor-Eldeen, who had a camera strung over his right shoulder and was centered in the crosshairs of the Apache's thirty-millimeter automatic cannon.

"Oh yeah," one of the crew members said to the other as he looked at the hanging camera. "That's a weapon."

"Hotel Two-six, this is Crazy Horse One-eight," the other crew member radioed in to the 2-16. "Have individuals with weapons."

They continued to keep the crosshairs on Noor-Eldeen as he walked along the street next to another man, who seemed to be leading him. On the right side of the street were some trash piles. On the left side were buildings. Now the man with Noor-Eldeen guided him by the elbow toward one of the buildings and motioned for him to get down. Chmagh followed, carrying a camera with a long telephoto lens. Behind Chmagh were four other men, one of whom appeared to be holding an AK-47 and one of whom appeared to be holding a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. The crosshairs swung now away from Noor-Eldeen and toward one of those men.

"Yup, he's got one, too," the crew member said. "Hotel Two-six, Crazy Horse One-eight. Have five to six individuals with AK-47s. Request permission to engage."

It was now one minute and four seconds before the first burst.

"Roger that," Hotel 2-6 replied. "We have no personnel east of our position, so you are free to engage. Over."

"All right, we'll be engaging," the other crew member said.

They couldn't engage yet, however, because the Apache's circling had brought it to a point where some buildings now obstructed the view of the men.

"I can't get them now," a crew member said.

Several seconds passed as the lead Apache continued its slow curve around. Now it was almost directly behind the building that Noor-Eldeen had been guided toward, and the crew members could see someone peering around the corner, looking in their direction and lifting something long and dark. This was Noor-Eldeen, raising a camera with a telephoto lens to his eyes.

"He's got an RPG."

"Okay, I got a guy with an RPG."

"I'm gonna fire."

But the building was still in the way.

"Goddamnit."

The Apache needed to circle all the way around, back to an unobstructed view of the street, before the gunner would have a clean shot.

Ten seconds passed as the helicopter continued to curve.

"Once you get on it, just open — "

Almost around now, the crew could see three of the men. Just a little more to go.

Now they could see five of them.

"You're clear."

Not quite. One last tree was in the way.

"All right."

There. Now all of the men could be seen. There were nine of them, including Noor-Eldeen. He was in the middle, and the others were clustered around him, except for Chmagh, who was on his cell phone a few steps away.

"Light 'em all up."

One second before the first burst, Noor-Eldeen glanced up at the Apache.

"Come on — fire."

The others followed his gaze and looked up, too.

The gunner fired.

It was a twenty-round burst that lasted for two seconds.

"Machine gun fire," Kauzlarich said quizzically, a half mile away, as the sky seemed to jerk, and meanwhile, here in east Al-Amin, nine men were suddenly grabbing their bodies as the street blew up around them, seven were now falling to the ground, dead or nearly dead, and two were running away — Chmagh and Noor-Eldeen.

The gunner saw Noor-Eldeen, tracked him in the crosshairs, and fired a second twenty-round burst, and after running perhaps twelve steps, Noor-Eldeen dove into a pile of trash.

"Keep shooting," the other crew member said.

There was a two-second pause, and then came the third burst. The trash all around where Noor-Eldeen lay facedown erupted. A cloud of dirt and dust rose into the air.

"Keep shooting."

There was a one-second pause, and then came the fourth burst. In the cloud, Noor-Eldeen could be seen trying to stand, and then he simply seemed to explode.

Excerpted from The Good Soldiers by David Finkel, published in September 2009 by Sarah Crichton Books, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright 2009 by David Finkel. All rights reserved.

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