a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

More on Baghdad, 7/12/07

Posted by Thomas Nephew on April 13th, 2010

Yesterday I spoke about the Wikileaks video (see below) with someone who’s actually been to Iraq as a journalist to cover the war.

An engagement with wannabes?
I asked him about what I thought was the “breathtakingly nonchalant” way the group of Iraqis handled themselves — walking in the open, ignoring nearby helicopters, standing about in a tightly bunched group.  He essentially said yeah, insurgents aren’t necessarily very good at any of this.  Also, in Baghdad at that time, helicopters were always flying around — and could stand off far from their targets while still observing them.  So it’s conceivable even an insurgent group with bad intent would ignore ones that weren’t in the immediate vicinity.  I have to say I still find the Iraqi group’s behavior implausible for insurgents, but maybe it squares with bravado, a gambler’s misjudgement, and/or lack of experience.

When I asked why so few weapons — an RPG and a couple of AK-47s, among the dozen or so dead Iraqis from the first attack — he suggested that the unarmed ones were hangers-on: gophers or wannabes for the two or three full-fledged “bazaari” local tough guy/insurgent types among the group.  While unarmed, they could still have been potential support (what kind, we didn’t discuss) for the armed members of the group.  He said when he was in Baghdad and visited a neighborhood to do some reporting, men standing around would immediately make a call on their cellphone — and he then knew he had only 10 or 15 minutes of relative safety before he might be kidnapped.  The cell phone wielding support people were the kind of people he could see accompanying a few armed insurgents on a mission.

When I suggested the group might have been a neighborhood escort for the journalists, he demurred; at least in his organization, and he strongly assumed in Reuters as well, journalists were told to put as much distance between themselves and armed Iraqis as possible, precisely because of the risk that they would become a target for U.S. forces.   On the other hand, while he couldn’t explain why the Reuters people were with the group, he thought it very unlikely they were secret insurgents themselves — news agencies in Baghdad vet their Iraqi employees too well for that at this point in the war.

Lest the impression arise that he was blase about the video, he wasn’t — but he thought the missile strikes (not discussed below) were the most troubling aspect of the video, because clearly passersby were in the immediate vicinity at the time the missile hit the abandoned building under construction.

I’m not sure how much differently the “wannabe” scenario can be judged from the one I developed.  I accept the journalist’s word for it that even a lightly armed, relatively incompetent group of Iraqis might still arouse legitimate suspicion.  But at the end of the day, even “wannabes” are just that: potential but not actual fighters.  And even the ones with weapons never fired a shot or threatened to.  Both the request and permission to engage came before the single threatening, but misunderstood action happened: the photographer pointing his telephoto lens around a corner, and the helicopter crew mistaking that for an RPG launcher.

Shades of dark gray
I think each of the actions in the video was questionable – most of all, the van, but also the missile firings, and “even” the initial attack that killed the two Reuters journalists.  But I don’t want to vilify or overly criticize the American troops involved, that’s not the point.

The point is that it’s really on the American people and American political leaders that those troops were there in the first place. In the front lines and toughest neighborhoods of a counterinsurgency war, troops will be in a position where “kill them all, let God sort it out” is or can seem to be a matter of survival. It’s apparently also broadly compatible with “rules of engagement” that look strict, but have fudge/weasel words like “reasonable” that mean even very dark shades of gray – in some situations in the video, practically black — aren’t out of bounds.

There’s a car in my neighborhood with a bumper sticker I like: “I’m already against the next war.” We shouldn’t even be building up a military designed for counterinsurgency wars, much less using it in such wars.  It’s as if we’re ancient Rome and the Middle East and Third World are the barbarians to be subdued. Those troops in the video may have crossed lines, but the main line that was crossed was sending them there in the first place; we have no right to seek out such wars and put our soldiers in them.

I think everyone in the US should watch that video a few times. They may start out jingoistic, and they may end up that way too.   But they may not.  And at least they’ll know what they’re calling for when ‘the next war’ rolls around.

11 Responses to “More on Baghdad, 7/12/07”

  1. Bill Cromer Says:

    Thomas Nephew,

    Not that I wish to sound like Colonel Jessep in the movie entitled “A Few Good Men” but when it comes to WikiLeaks video called “Collateral Murder” YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!

    The black van, which is actually a taxi, can be seen in the long version of the video [39.14] in the upper right hand corner at time :28. It is stopped at an intersection on a road facing east with it’s sliding door open. He is dropping off both of the Reuters employees as well as two other males.

    It turns left and is first reported by a pilot at time “:39” when he says, “I got a black vehicle under target.” Here the van can be seen heading south in front of a parked bus. It’s moving away from the main battlefield which is five blocks away (north).

    The pilot then says, “It’s arriving right to the north of the mosque” at time :41. At time :45 he says it’s, “moving south by the mosque dome.” At time :47 he says, “down that road.” The road beside the mosque dome!

    At time :51 the pilot says, “OK we got a target fifteen coming at you.” At time :54 he says, “It’s a guy with a weapon.” This other pilot (Crazyhorse 1/9) has spotted one of the Reuters employees walking north and has mistaken his camera for an AK 47.

    Note here that at time 1:05 we can see the parked bus which is the one seen earlier being passed by the moving van. Also note that the pilot now says, “There’s about four or five at this location and there’s more that keep walking by and one of them has a weapon [1:15].” Again, the weapon identified is a camera.

    There’s only one situation in this film were four or five individuals are standing in a group and more individual are walking by. Jump ahead to time 1:31 and you can see the four individuals in the upper right hand corner of the frame. You can also see the Reuters employees, along with their two companions, walking north – described by the pilot as “walking by.” Again, this description is from the pilot in the other helicopter – not the one shooting the video! [His view has to be from the east or west as Crazyhorse 1/8 circles around approaching a north view.]

    Now go back and proceed from 1:05. One pilot asks, “See all those people standing down there [1:22] ? ” Note here the parked bus once again. From here we will see the Reuters employees, and their two walking companions, as they approach the others in the courtyard. At 1:22 the pilot says, “See all those people down there?”

    Crazyhorse 1/8 zooms in on the “twenty” described and focuses on the Reuters group walking north on “the road by the mosque dome.” Not far from the parked bus where they got out of the van (taxi).

    Everything that happens from here on is simple. Once you figure out that the ten men being fired on at time 3:16 are all in view at time 1:33. For example: Saeed, who is seen on the phone at time 3:12, has to be talking to Saleh. He’s asking him to come back an pick them up. Saleh, who has heard the attack over his cell phone, returns about four minuets later to find that his fare of four has turned into one – a wounded Saeed. Note here that two from the group of four mentioned above, the group the Reuters employees were “walking by,” help get Saeed back into the van.

    Can you figure out which ones are in the two groups of insurgents and their plan of attack on the humvee – after Namir photographs it? Can you handle the truth?

    Bill Cromer

  2. Thomas Nephew Says:

    I can handle the truth if you can prove it and if you tell me plainly and briefly what you think it is. You believe these were definitely insurgents? That Namir was an insurgent too? The black van/taxi driver too? You recognize Namir when the taxi drops him off?

    But thanks for taking the time to write; I’ll have another look at the video this evening and follow your description along then.

  3. Bill Cromer Says:


    Start with the van first seen at time :28. Say it’s stopped in the street letting passengers off. Eleven seconds later the pilot identifies it half way down the block where it’s moving south at time :39.

    Namir and company can be seen in the distant view walking north at time 1:26. Moving north on the same road the van is on. In 58 seconds they have walked a hundred feet or so and are beyond the parked bus.

    There can’t be two vans! Unless, of course, they are both at the same location at the same time. In which case Namir and company got out of one van which turned left and never returned. The second would have to stay at that location for nearly seven minuets before driving a couple blocks to pick up the wounded Saeed. Or visa versa which is impossible!

    Surely, your not going to say that Namir and company were sitting in another vehicle and happened to get out as the van passed them. Then this, or another similar van, returned to rescue Saeed seven minuets later. Give me a break, that didn’t happen! No, Saleh dropped them off and Saeed called him for a ride at time 3:12. He arrived in just over 4 minuets.

    While your checking this stuff check out time 2:39. This is where everyone thinks the pilot mistook the camera for an R.P.G.. Impossible! Review 2:32 – 2:33 and see the long shadow from the zoom lens cast on the ground. The attached lens hood is making it look exactly like an R.P.G.. The pilot says, “He’s got an R.P.G.” at 2:33! A full six seconds before Namir’s camera is seen clearly. The pilot identified the shadow as an R.P.G. not the camera.

    Bill Cromer

  4. Thomas Nephew Says:

    OK, say Saeed had a prior connection to the van. Maybe he texted him, or maybe he’d arranged the pickup earlier and the van found the mess it did. Thing is: so what? How does that change anything about whether shooting any of them — but particularly the van, the rescuers, and wounded Saeed — was justified? Similarly, say the pilot identified the shadow as an RPG and not the camera. Again: so what? The request and permission to engage came *before* all that.

    You make many detailed, tick-tock points, but I need you to say what they add up to in your view, because I don’t see that they add up to anything yet. Maybe just two or three sentences like “Saeed and his rescuers in the van clearly deserved to be shot because ___. The first shooting was clearly OK because ___.” Etc.

  5. Bill Cromer Says:


    What if we’re looking at this video with the wrong mindset? From the comfort of our living room we see a brutal slaying. The only armed forces out side our door are paid to protect and serve.

    Not true where the video is shot. There is a war going on there and our soldiers are paid to kill people. It’s their job! The Apache helicopter pilots think their shooting at the enemy. They see insurgents on the ground not civilians or photographers. If the pilots appear to enjoy what they’re doing, why not. It’s a job well done, isn’t it?

    With this in mind look at the video again. Start with the twenty or so individuals mulling around in a courtyard. In fact, freeze the video at time 1:32.

    Here we have twenty individuals standing around in an open courtyard. Why? It’s nearly 10:30 am, why aren’t they at work. If they don’t have a job why aren’t they at a bar, or with women. Why aren’t they drunk, sleep or at the river fishing? What the hell are they all doing there?

    The only excitement within 100 miles is battle going on 4 blocks away and an American humvee one block away. Odd don’t you think? An American humvee one block away and they’re just mulling around in a nearby courtyard.

    Lets say, hypothetically of course, the four men standing to the right in this frame – soon to be joined by a fifth after his brief encounter with the photographer – are one block east of an intersection that would be an excellent location for firing an R.P.G. at the rear of that American humvee. The position one of these fellows points to as that fifth member joins the group. A place where they have concealed their weapons – hypothetically of course!

    Lets also say the five guys at the bottom left in this frame are part of a group that’s one block south of an intersection that would be an excellent location for firing an R.P.G. at the right side of the American humvee. Coincidentally, one of these guys has an AK 47, one has an R.P.G. and one has an additional R.P.G. round.

    Now lets get real. Ten of these guys, with accompanying photographer and assistant, just happen to mull down to the corner. A position mentioned above as being an excellent location for firing an R.P.G. at the right side of the humvee. Not one of these individuals ventured beyond the corner of the building for so much as a peep to see what’s beyond.

    They gathered tightly to view the images (humvee) on the back of the camera but none ventured to peep around the corner. There is only one explanation for this. They all knew the humvee was around the corner and that Americans soldiers, at 100 meters, are pretty actuate with their M16’s.

    There’s only one problem with our hypothetical situation. If these guys were insurgents planning to attack the humvee they would know about the battle and the humvee. They would also know they would be safe from the Apache helicopters as long as they were not viewed as a threat. Safe as long as they stayed one block away from their attack locations.

    Trouble was, during the excitement of getting pictures of insurgents attacking Coalition forces, they overlooked where they were standing – in the attack location! At the last moment some realized what this looked like to the pilot circling around to their east. Namir looked at the helicopter and tried to scurry away. The fellow with the AK 47 in his right hand tried to conceal it under his left arm.

    All of this is pure speculation of course – A hypothetical situation. I’m sure these innocent civilians were just mulling around in an open courtyard. Four blocks away from a battle and one block away from an American Humvee. Perhaps these citizens should have gone fishing.

  6. Thomas Nephew Says:

    Well, I disagree. You ask, “What the hell are they all doing there?” They *live* there, remember? They get to walk around. As I understand it, Baghdad was (and is) a dangerous place, you’d like some protection from death squads (at the time), maybe you’re a local tough, who knows. So you carry a weapon. You make much of their proximity to a nearby battle , with the handful of weapons between them — but on any given day in any given part of Baghdad, it wasn’t that unlikely there was an engagement nearby. And *any* street corner in Baghdad would be “ideal” for an ambush if there’s a Humvee coming down the road.

    And I can’t believe real live insurgents would gather round to look at the back of a digital camera, that sounds like something out of Monty Python: “…yup, that’s a Humvee all right – no it *isn’t* — of *course* it is – would all of you just *shut up*…” More likely they heard the convoy and stopped to keep out of line of fire; I agree with you there, and that they didn’t realize they were in the line of fire of something even worse. — And even if the RPG makes it all OK for the first round of firing, it doesn’t when the unarmed van shows up with unarmed van occupants to rescue one unarmed, badly wounded man off the street.

    I’m not in a dither about how the US troops talked. But it does show (I think) that they never thought twice about anything they did. I understand not thinking twice about things can be part of surviving in a combat zone; I still think this incident illustrates how lethal that is for everyone else, insurgent or not. You say “…why not. It’s a job well done isn’t it?” That’s the question all right; I think the answer was “no,” partly because I think the soldiers went too far, and partly because they shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

  7. Bill Cromer Says:

    I think you’re overlooking what’s really going on in the video. The fact that the helicopter is circling – a maneuver which makes it a difficult to target – prevents you from seeing the big picture.

    Lets say you are the pilot of the Apache helicopter, Crazy horse 1/8. And you have been called in to support troops on the ground.

    Now, rather than circle, you position your aircraft directly above the main force which consists of a large number of personal and several vehicles. To your southwest, at two o’clock, there are some American humvee’s three blocks away.

    All of a sudden about ten men from a group of twenty start walking (north) straight toward the main force below you. They all stop and position themselves behind a building one block to the east of those humvee’s.

    These men are not really a threat to the main force but are a serious threat to those humvee’s. Especially if you know they have weapons! It’s your job to protect those vehicles, what would you do?

    Keep in mind that all of these forces have been under fire from small arms and R.P.G.’s. It’s the reason they called you in.

    A group of Iraqie citizens with weapons would not position themselves behind a building 100 meters away from American humvee’s. These cannot be innocent citizens – they are hostile insurgents!

    For the sake of this example, now move your helicopter to a position directly above the humvee’s. When you look east at the insurgents one of them points an R.P.G. at you and the humvee below. Again, what would you do?

  8. Bill Cromer Says:

    Come on Thomas,

    The devil is always in the details!

    WikiLeaks is using the video to deceive people – movement against the war in Iraq – so they will contribute money to their organization. If you need more proof, do the following:

    Look at the van in the long version of the video from time 10:34 to 10:47. Go back and freeze at 10:45. Notice the headlights, bumper and windshield with bullet hole.

    Now open another window. Go to the Collateral Murder website and click on resources. Scroll down to the photo of the van. Move this and the other window so you can compare both photo’s.

    Obviously, the van has been damaged a great deal more by someone who wishes to make the attack look worse than it really was!

    The devil is always in the details!

  9. Bill Cromer Says:

    Last correspondence to make a believer out of you Thomas,

    Review 2:11 to 2:27 and note the following:

    “Request for permission to engage” comes at time 2:12 and permission to engage was granted at time 2:22. This is 22 seconds before Namir’s camera was mistaken for an R.P.G. at time 2:34.

    Prior to all of this, no doubt Namir’s camera’s was mistaken for AK 47. But that’s totally irrelevant! Permission to engage was permission to engage the three individuals with weapons (AK 47, R.P.G., R.P.G. round), along with others including the Reuters employees thought to have weapons. All ten of whom were gathered behind a building one block east of Americans humvee’s who had been under fire from small arms and R.P.G.’s.

    The fact that Namir pointed his camera at the helicopter is also irrelevant! The pilot was going to engage anyway as soon as he cleared that building!

    I feel as bad as anyone else about people being killed but that’s what happens in war. May Allah have mercy on their souls. Nevertheless, the pilots were doing their job and doing it very well. WikiLeeaks, and those who have been deceived by them, have, in effect, made a mountain out of a mole hill!

    Seems to me that the individuals in the open courtyard wanted Namir to take photographs of Coalition forces being attacked by insurgents. This would result in financial support for them and their efforts when published. Likewise, WikiLeaks posted the video in order to gain financial support for their organization.

    I Timothy 6:10 – For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.

    In His service, bye bye
    Bill Cromer

  10. Thomas Nephew Says:

    “The fact that Namir pointed his camera at the helicopter is also irrelevant! The pilot was going to engage anyway as soon as he cleared that building!” — From here on in, you get 100 words or less, once a week, excess subject to deletion. You’ve gotten so wrapped up in writing thousands of words that you seem to overlook I say that myself in my post. We obviously come to different conclusions after that; I feel the situation did not warrant executing everyone in that group willy nilly, you feel otherwise. To be constructive, a comment ought to take note of what it’s commenting on; this isn’t your platform to develop 10000 word ‘baffle them with, um, baloney’ ‘too much time on my hands’ dissertations. I’m glad you finally got around to stating your thesis (“Seems to me that the individuals in the open courtyard wanted Namir to take photographs of Coalition forces being attacked by insurgents. This would result in financial support for them and their efforts when published. Likewise, WikiLeaks posted the video in order to gain financial support for their organization.”) Next time, do so at the outset.

    You’re acknowledging that only a very few of the individuals were armed; that’s good. You’re not acknowledging that they never overtly threatened any Americans. You’re not acknowledging that whatever one thinks of the first attack, the second one was very different and beyond the pale even for many military commentators. You’re not acknowledging that I’m not vilifying the troops per se, though I think they erred tragically in the first case and punishably in the second case. I’m mainly deeply questioning their mission or any mission that requires judgments by helicopter crews about whether or not to kill a great number of unarmed civilians because of the presence of a few armed ones.

    Instead, you write voluminously but to little real purpose about what you *believe* to be true, instead of what was clear and what could not possibly have been clear to the helicopter crews. You seem very determined to prove what can not possibly be proven, that the dead were all insurgents, and that that was obvious to everyone during and after the attack. You seem very determined to prove that everything the American soldiers did that day was justified. Yet that shouldn’t be necessary from your own point of view (“that’s what happens in war“). Stop trying to prove too much. It can’t be done.

    Finally, re “In His Service”, I’ll just quote John Prine:
    Jesus don’t like killing,
    No matter what the reasons for
    And your flag decal won’t get you
    Into heaven any more.

  11. Bill Cromer Says:

    WikiLeaks made a mountain out of a mole hill and your standing on the summit. While your up there be careful not to trip on reality – in war solders kill people. The people killed here were ten men, some with weapons, gathered together behind a building one block from American humvee’s. The killer here was called in because the humvee’s were taking small arms fire from that location. Those killed, with exception of the photographers, were the enemy – hostel insurgents! Now go ahead and put those rose colored glasses back on.

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