Before WikiLeaks Arab Media Documented Civilian Deaths

Before WikiLeaks Arab Media Documented Civilian Deaths

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The recent release on the Internet of a trove of classified military documents draws widespread attention to the high number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan at the hands of U.S. soldiers, and a general disregard for the lives of Afghans. The secret documents, revealed Sunday by WikiLeaks, are not news to Arab media, which over the past five years have broadcast reports documenting American attacks and indiscriminate killing of Afghan and Iraqi civilians.

The WikiLeaks documents, 90,000 in total, do much to validate Arab media, and taken together, the two provide a powerful account of U.S. involvement in civilian deaths spanning two wars.

While the WikiLeaks materials are based on military records, Arab media reports depend on eyewitness accounts and powerful video images, showing scores of victims including women and children.

For example, the Dubai-based television station Al Arabiya, which aired Obama’s first interview after he was sworn in, aired a report on May 19, 2004 depicting the aftermath of a U.S. military aircraft attack on an Iraqi wedding party near the Syria-Iraq border that killed dozens of civilians.

The helicopter attack in Makr-al Deeb village stirred controversy in the Arab world, and Arab media treated it as the “My Lai massacre” of the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

At the time, the U.S. government insisted that the missile strikes in the remote desert village, which Iraqis say led to the death of more than 40 civilians, were based on intelligence, indicating the presence of foreign fighters that had fired at U.S. aircrafts.

But Al Arabiya’s investigative report, titled “Wedding of Blood,” based on interviews with Afghani villagers, tells a different story of the May 19 incident. 

Al Arabiya interviewed the groom, who lost 26 members of his family in the attack. “(I have) nothing left to live for. I can no longer see my brothers, sisters, mother, and nephews,” he told Al Arabiya.

Survivors described in horrific detail the actions of U.S. soldiers once they arrived on the scene after the initial air strike.

One man told Al Arabiya: “We were sleeping in the garden outside and some were sleeping inside the house. Then, we started walking to leave, but whenever the (Americans) saw anyone moving, they hit him.”

The Al Arabiya reporter then asked, “How did they hit him?”

The man answered, “They opened fire at him until they finished him.”

It was unclear whether the man was referring to air-to-ground attacks or ground fire.

"Wedding of Blood” was also broadcast on several other Arab TV networks, including Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, Al Manar in Lebanon and Al Alam in Iran.

Al Jazeera English reported another incident involving civilian casualties, involving a joint Afghan-NATO raid on the village of Haiderabad in Ghazni Province of Afghanistan on Nov. 20, 2009. The soldiers opened fire on an Afghan family while they were sleeping and let their dogs bite women and children. 

In many cases, Arab media used testimony by American soldiers themselves to validate their reports about U.S. responsibility for civilian casualties. For example, Al Jazeera English reported on March 15, 2008 that hundreds of U.S. veterans of the war in Iraq say the American military has been covering up widespread civilian killings in Iraq. The soldiers who testified said that there have been routine cover-ups of indiscriminate killings of Iraqi civilians.

Former U.S. Marine Jason Washburn, for example, told Al Jazeera English: “We would carry these weapons and shovels so in case we accidentally shot a civilian we would toss the weapon on the body and we would say that he was an insurgent.”

U.S. Army veteran Jason Hurd said, “We would fire indiscriminately and unnecessarily at this building. We never got a body count and we never got a casualty count afterward.” He added, “These things happen every day in Iraq.”

The veterans also showed videos supporting their claims. The testimony of the U.S. veterans also highlights the mental state of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan that may have led to acts of violence against civilians.

Al Jazeera English journalist Omar Chatriwala wrote in a blog (“WikiLeaks vs. the Pentagon") that the WikiLeaks documents are supported by reports from the ground by Al Jazeera English. 

Some Arab media have raised questions about the political consequences of the leaked military records. Al Sharq Al Awsat raised questions about the negative impact on U.S. allies in the war against Al Qaeda.

London-based Arab newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat reported that Afghan and Pakastani informants who have worked with American intelligence agents or the military against the Taliban or al-Qaeda may be at risk following the disclosure of the secret WikiLeaks documents.

With the release of the WikiLeaks documents, Arab media may finally feel vindicated, as Western media finally start to give greater prominence to civilian casualties.