Motive for Baghdad Helicopter Massacre a Mystery

The US military has offered at least two distinct explanations for killing 13 people and wounding at least 60 others, including children, early Monday morning on Haifa Street in a residential area of central Baghdad. What the Army first explained as a routine operation to destroy an abandoned American military vehicle for the safety of onlookers and to prevent resistance fighters from looting its weapons was later described as an act of self-preservation by American forces, whereby helicopter gunship crews returned fire originating in the vicinity of the vehicle.

Whatever the target or circumstances, a dozen Iraqis and a Palestinian journalist lay dead among dozens of wounded residents, who had spilled out of nearby apartment buildings after U.S. infantry forces retreated at the end of an hours-long firefight along a stretch of Haifa Street. Abundant eyewitness testimony backed up by television footage indicates the helicopters fired directly at the crowd, at least most of whose members were clearly unarmed.

The first U.S. explanations came shortly after the assault took place. "It’s not our intent to kill and injure civilians," American Lt. Col. Steve Boylan, a spokesman for the foreign occupation forces in Iraq, told The NewStandard on Sunday. "We were not firing at any civilians. We were firing at the vehicle itself."

"The helicopter fired on the Bradley to destroy it after it had been hit earlier and it was on fire," Maj. Phil Smith of the 1st Cavalry Division said to the Independent. Without noting the irony in his statement, he added, "It was for the safety of the people around it."

But footage taken by an Al-Arabiya crew at the scene clearly shows explosions among a crowd of noncombatants some distance from the burning Bradley fighting vehicle, an armored troop transporter that resembles a tank. In fact, even though the Bradley is shown in the distant background as Palestinian TV producer Mazen al-Tumeizi set up for a live interview at the scene, one of the missiles fired from U.S. aircraft hit close enough to kill al-Tameizi and wound the camera operator, Seif Fouad.

Later the military would adjust its version of events in a press statement, saying that "air support was called, and as the helicopters flew over the burning Bradley, they received small-arms fire from the insurgents near the vehicle."

This official military account of the incident implies that, on their first pass, U.S. chopper crews could clearly distinguish between "insurgents" and civilians, and engaged the former with "return fire" while avoiding the latter.

The military statement continues, "Clearly within the rules of engagement, officials said, the helicopters returned fire, destroying some anti-Iraqi forces near the Bradley and preventing the loss of sensitive equipment and weapons." The statement is written in the format of a news article to encourage direct duplication by reporters.

On their second pass, the statement says the crews chose not to engage, as they could no longer distinguish between fighters and noncombatants.

This version differs drastically from all Iraqi accounts given to The NewStandard and other reporters and bears no resemblance to television footage taken at the scene. On the Al-Arabiya video, there is no sign of fire coming from the ground, and no fire from above precedes the explosions that killed and wounded noncombatants far from the disemboweled Bradley.

In fact, photojournalist and columnist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, who was injured at the scene, wrote in the UK Guardian that he was wounded during a third round of blasts that occurred minutes after the first explosions ripped through the crowd. He recounted no shots fired from the ground, but described a gruesome scene in which dying civilians called out for help while the wounded, including a small boy whose leg a U.S. missile had partially amputated, were evacuated from the scene.

According to Abdul-Ahad, who stayed at the scene long after sustaining injuries to help and photograph the victims, helicopters fired again more than five minutes later.

But the military statement seems to insist the helicopters only fired once, at "insurgents near the vehicle," before calling off the assault. "As the helicopters made their final pass," the official statement reads, "the Bradley fighting vehicle was on fire and a crowd was gathering around the vehicle. The aircrew could not discriminate between armed insurgents and civilians on the ground, officials said, and therefore did not re-engage."

By all accounts on the ground, the crowd had gathered at least minutes before the helicopters arrived; children and other unarmed civilians were celebrating the departure of the American troops and the hit on the Bradley, whose crew had evacuated, by dancing on and around the vehicle; and nearly the entire crowd disbursed once the helicopters began firing from above.

In the instant preceding the explosion that mortally wounded TV reporter al-Tameizi, he appears on camera entirely unaware that aircraft are about to strike the crowd in which he is standing, suggesting there was no warning at all, and that gathered civilians were targeted on the very first strike.

Neighborhood residents, who said both missiles and machine-gun fire were used against them that morning, called the official U.S. explanation into question.

According to U.S. military officials, the Bradley had to be demolished in order to keep it out of the wrong hands. "Since we could not remove the vehicle, it was determined that it had to be destroyed," Lt. Col. Boylan explained, "so that it would not be used against [U.S.] and Iraqi forces."

But rarely, if ever, have U.S. forces called in an air strike to destroy the remains of a disabled vehicle in Baghdad. Indeed, Iraqis point out, nearby Sadr City, where combat between U.S. personnel and Shiite resistance forces has become a nightly ritual, is regularly littered with the husks of abandoned armored vehicles and Humvees that are not later demolished in U.S. air strikes.

Some residents of Haifa Street openly expressed their belief that "the Americans" were out for some kind of retribution on Sunday.

"This was revenge against civilians because the [resistance] hit one of the U.S. tanks," said a man on Haifa Street who would only refer to himself as Abu Mohammed.

The difference between Sunday’s incident and others where U.S. military accounts have differed drastically from all available eyewitness versions of events is that this one was witnessed directly by reporters and partially caught on videotape. The military says the incident is under investigation.

Orly Halpern in Baghdad contributed to this piece.