The latest cache of WikiLeaks documents—391,832 * of them, leaked from the Pentagon’s secret archives on the Iraq war—are now up, in summarized form, on the Web sites of the New York Times, Britain’s Guardian, Le Monde, and Der Spiegel.
Judging from the excerpts and analyses in the English-language papers, the documents contain a few new and interesting things, some of which may not please the war critics who tend to be among WikiLeaks’ biggest fans.
First, it seems that Pentagon officials were keeping a log of civilian casualties, though spokesmen frequently said at the time that they weren’t. A secret Defense Department report estimated that just over 100,000 noncombatants were killed between 2004 and 2009.
The WikiLeaks documents reveal some previously unknown instances of casualties caused by Americans—for instance, a 2007 incident in which an Apache helicopter crew killed two Iraqis who were trying to surrender. More intriguing, this helicopter had the same call sign, “Crazyhorse 18,” as the Apache that later accidentally killed two Reuters reporters.
However, the bigger finding is that, at least according to the Pentagon’s secret report, most Iraqi civilian deaths were caused by other Iraqis. The report calculates 31,780 Iraqis killed by roadside bombs and 34,814 by sectarian killings (notated as “murders”).
The overall number is consistent with estimates by Iraq Body Count, a private organization that attempts to track casualties through media reports. However, an IBC press release put out on Friday said that, after scouring the WikiLeaks documents, the group has seen references to 15,000 deaths that it had not previously reported—thus boosting its count from 107,000 to 122,000.
By that measure, the Pentagon’s estimate is a bit on the low side. However, the WikiLeaks documents add further doubts to a controversial report in a 2006 issue of the medical journal the Lancet, claiming that, even that early in the war, 655,000 Iraqi civilians had been killed, most of them by U.S. air and artillery strikes.
The WikiLeaks documents also bear out claims by some U.S. officials at the time that Iran was playing an active role in supporting Iraqi Shiite militia groups—supplying them with rockets and particularly lethal IEDs, training their snipers, and helping to plot assassinations of Iraqi officials. These activities apparently continued after Barack Obama was elected president.
Perhaps the most startling document, summarized in one of the several New York Times stories about the archive, tells of a violent border incident on Sept. 7, 2006, when an Iranian soldier aimed a rocket-propelled grenade launcher at a U.S. platoon. Before he could fire the RPG, an American soldier killed the Iranian with .50-caliber-machine-gun fire. The U.S. platoon, which had been near the border looking for Iranian infiltration routes, withdrew under fire.
Nothing grew out of this skirmish, but this is the first time any mention has been made of a firefight between U.S. and Iranian forces during the Iraq war.
Finally, the WikiLeaks documents offer abundant evidence that, while some American guards behaved horrendously toward Iraqi detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison, Iraqi police and soldiers have behaved much worse.
The documents reveal several instances of U.S. soldiers witnessing Iraqi abuses. In some cases, they tried to stop the abuse, to no avail. In one case, a soldier reported an incident to his superior, who wrote on the report, “No investigation required.”
Last summer, just before he disseminated thousands of leaked documents on the Afghanistan war, Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, told Der Spiegel, “This is something that I find meaningful and satisfying. That is my temperament. … I enjoy helping people who are vulnerable. And I enjoy crushing bastards.”
These new documents indicate, whether Assange realizes it or not, that not all the bastards are American.
Correction, Oct. 25, 2010: This article originally misstated the number of documents in the latest WikiLeaks release. (Return to the corrected sentence.)Become a fan of Slate on Facebook. Follow Slate and the Slate Foreign Desk on Twitter.