The black-and-white video images of the dusty streets of Baghdad are grainy and shaky but they are clear enough to show American helicopter gunships carrying out an unprovoked attack that killed a dozen Iraqis, including two employees of the Reuters news agency.
In the leaked footage, taken from an Apache gunship, pilots could be heard revelling after the shooting, with comments like "Oh yeah, look at those dead bastards" and "Ha, ha, I hit them". After the firing of a Hellfire missile, a pilot is heard saying: "Look at that bitch go!" And news that two girls had been badly injured was greeted with: "Well, it's their fault for bringing their kids into a battle."
The Apache crew had obtained permission to open fire by claiming to have spotted six people with AK-47 rifles and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. This cannot be ascertained from the film, but among those killed were 22-year-old Namir Noor-Eldeen, a photographer carrying a camera, and his driver, Saeed Chmagh, 40, carrying out a journalistic assignment.
A wounded man, believed to be Mr Noor-Eldeen, is seen trying to crawl away from the scene of the carnage. Watching, one crew member is heard saying: "Come on buddy, all you have got to do is pick up a weapon." The injured man is then dragged into a van, leading to bursts of fire from the Apache.
According to radio messages, there were four or five people in the vehicle - two of them children, it was later acknowledged. In total, the crew estimated that they had killed 12 to 15 people.
Reuters had unsuccessfully pressed for the release of the footage ever since Mr Noor-Eldeen and Mr Chmagh were killed on 12 July 2007. The video was put on the internet by the site WikiLeaks, which specialises in exposing official documents. The group claimed that it had acquired the encrypted video from military whistleblowers and had been given information which allowed it to break the encryption code.
In Mosul, Mr Noor-Eldeen's family wept as they watched the tape. "At last the truth has been revealed," the photographer's father told The New York Times. "If such an incident took place in America, even if an animal were killed like this, what would they do?"
Pentagon officials confirmed that the tape was authentic. Major Shawn Turner, a spokesman for US Central Command, said an investigation shortly after the incident concluded that US forces were unaware of the presence of the Reuters team and believed they were engaging armed insurgents.
Major Turner insisted "there was never any attempt to cover up any aspect of this engagement" and that the helicopter pilots had mistaken the camera being held by Mr Noor-Eldeen for a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.
Last Monday the US military released a redacted report into the killings which showed pictures of what it said were machine-guns and grenades found near the dead bodies. It claimed that the Reuters employees "made no effort to visibly display their status as press or media representatives".
The military also declared that journalists' reporting on insurgent activities made them, in effect, fair game, insisting that their "familiar behaviour" and "close proximity to the armed insurgents" led the crew that killed them to believe they were hostile.
Reuters had consistently pointed out that its staff were simply carrying out their job. David Schlesinger, the editor-in-chief of Reuters news, said the footage was "graphic evidence of the dangers involved in war journalism and the tragedies that can result".
In Baghdad, the Iraqi Journalists' Union called on the government to carry out an investigation into the killings. The Committee to Protect Journalists, based in New York, supported the demand for an inquiry.
Meanwhile, around five massive bombs were used to hit apartment buildings in Baghdad yesterday, killing at least 39 people and injuring more than 130 others. This was the fourth attack across the country in five days, claiming over a hundred lives.
The violence continues amid the political turmoil following recent national elections, with Iyad Allawi, whose coalition came out just ahead of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's group, blaming the resurgence of bombings on a "power vacuum".
Smoking gun: Extracts from the tape
The two Apaches are given permission to attack the group:
- Light 'em all up.
- Come on, fire!
- Keep shooting, keep shooting...
- All right, ha ha ha, I hit 'em.
One wounded man, believed to be the photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen, tries to crawl away from the scene of the attack:
- He's getting up.
- Maybe he has a weapon in his hand?
- No, I haven't seen one yet...
- Come on, buddy.
- All you gotta do is pick up a weapon.
The crews learn that children were among the group attacked:
- Roger, I've got, uh, 11 Iraqi KIAs. One small child wounded. Over.
- Roger. Ah damn. Oh well ...
- Well, it's their fault for bringing their kids into a battle.
- That's right.
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