In early March 2006, Donald Rumsfeld called a Pentagon news conference to declare Iraq peaceful — and to say that U.S. reporters in Baghdad were liars for reporting otherwise. Contrary to the jumble of “exaggerated” reporting from Baghdad, the then-secretary of defense said at the Washington press briefing, Iraq was experiencing no such thing as the explosion of sectarian violence that myself and many of my fellow journalists in Baghdad were covering in the aftermath of a fateful February 2006 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra.
Certainly, some Iraqis were trying to incite civil war, Rumsfeld acknowledged. But Iraq’s own security forces had “taken the lead in controlling the situation,” he insisted, and quick action by the Shiite-led government had “a calming effect.” Rumsfeld also made clear at the time that U.S. officials were fighting another kind of war over Iraq — the battle for U.S. opinion. The “misreporting” on the death toll was driving down U.S. support for the war, the defense secretary complained.
Four years on, however, WikiLeaks’ release of contemporary troop logs raises serious questions about who, exactly, was doing the lying. One of the few absolute revelations from the Wikileaks documents is the extent to which Rumsfeld, then-U.S. commander Gen. George Casey, and others had access to ample information from unimpeachable sources — their own troops on the ground in Iraq — regarding how badly events had turned in Iraq by 2006, but nonetheless denied a surge in killing to reporters and the U.S. public.
“The country is not awash in sectarian violence,” Casey told one U.S. television network in the wake of the Samarra bombing. And talk of Iraq sliding into civil war? “I don’t see it happening, certainly anytime in the near term,” Casey said.
But in hundreds of terse log entries from the field — now made public by WikiLeaks — U.S. troops documented more comprehensively than we reporters could ever have hoped the explosion of retaliatory killings, kidnappings, tortures, mosque attacks, and open street fighting. The reports streamed in the hours and days after the bombing of the Shiite shrine in Samarra enraged Iraq’s Shiite militias. What we reported then has now been confirmed: The bombing transformed Iraq’s building sectarian violence into something even darker.
In one of scores of entries recording U.S. troops coming upon handcuffed, tortured bodies on Feb. 22, 2006, and in the days after, a U.S. officer recounted happening upon fighters as they threw bodies from a car. The commander was in time to note how fresh the corpses were: “BODIES WERE SHOT IN THE FACE AND BODIES WERE STILL WARM,” he wrote.
In fact, U.S. soldiers in Iraq saw and heard the eruption of civil war in Iraq from the first minutes. According to one of the tense, redacted log entries logging the moment of the mosque bombing, “AT ___ 0701C FEB ___, THERE WERE 2X AUDIBLE EXPLOSIONS THAT WERE REPORTED FROM A MOUNTED PATROL … THE ROOF OF THE GOLDEN MOSQUE HAD COLLAPSED.”
By the afternoon of Feb. 22, 2006, U.S. soldiers in Baghdad, Basra, Diyala, and around central Iraq were recording dozens of retaliatory attacks with grenade launchers and small arms on mosques, and the outbreak of tense, angry demonstrations countrywide. (The log entries below are a sampling; pages of more such log entries for Feb. 22 and the days after can be found on www.wikileaks.org. An article I wrote for the Daily Beast gives a shorter version of the log entries.)
Not always comprehendingly, U.S. soldiers noted the massing protesters often were the armed and black-clad fighters of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s feared Mahdi Army militia.
One report read:
“___ INSURGENTS ARE PREPARING THEMSELVES FOR AN ENCOUNTER WITH ___ MILITIA IN //:___//. THE ___ INSURGENTS BELIEVE ___ MILITIA FROM BALAD //:___// AND BAGHDAD ARE HEADING TOWARDS ___ TO ENGAGE ___ IN RETALIATION FOR THE BOMBING OF THE GOLDEN MOSQUE //:___// IN ___. THE ___ INSURGENTS FROM AREAS NEAR ___ ARE EQUIPPING THEMSELVES AND HEADING TOWARDS THE ___ TO ENTER ___, NFI…”
The reports persisted, enough that the military seems to have given them a distinct heading, “Golden Mosque.”
In the streets of Iraq’s capital, open fighting erupted between Shiite fighters — known as the Mahdi Army, or Jaish al-Mahdi (JAM) –and Sunni men of the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party. Soon, troops were reporting bodies in the streets of Baghdad. Without necessarily seeking them out, U.S. troops were coming across dozens of them. Half pages and full pages of such finds made their way into the logs, in numbing repetition:
# UNK 2006-02-24 18:00:00
MURDER, MND-SE, 1 CASUALTIES
5X AIF WEARING BLACK UNIFORMS AND OPERATING A ___ CAB WHITE ___ KIDNAPPED ___ IN THE ___ AREA OF ___ BASRAH. . ‘___ BODY WAS FOUND SHOT IN THE ___ 0730C FEB ___. REMAINS TAKEN TO LOCAL MORGUE.…
# UNK 2006-02-24 18:00:00
MURDER, MND-BAGHDAD, 2 CASUALTIES
2X UNIDENTIFIED MALE BODIES WERE FOUND SHOT. THEY WERE APPROXIMATELY -___ YEARS OLD.…
MURDER, 0, 2 CASUALTIES
2X BODIES WERE FOUND IN DIYALA PROVINCE BY MNF. THEY WERE TAKEN TO THE LOCAL IPS IN THE AREA. BOTH WERE EMPLOYEES OF THE ELECTRIC DEPARTMENT OF ___. THEIR NAMES ARE ___ AND ___.…