WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. military’s Central Command said on Wednesday it has no current plans to reopen an investigation into a 2007 helicopter attack that killed a dozen people in Baghdad, including two Reuters news staff, amid rights groups’ appeals after graphic video footage was leaked.
Some international law and human rights experts who have watched the video of the incident say the Apache helicopter crew in the footage may have acted illegally.
Lawyers at Central Command have been reviewing the classified video, made public on Monday by a group that promotes leaking to fight government and corporate corruption, two U.S. military officials said on condition of anonymity.
“We’re looking at a reinvestigation because of a question of the rules of engagement. Were all the actions that are depicted on that video in parallel with the rules of engagement in effect at the time?” one of the officials said.
But Rear Admiral Hal Pittman, director of communications at Central Command, which oversees the war in Iraq, said in a statement to Reuters: “Central Command has no current plans to reinvestigate or review this combat action.”
Other officials said Central Command was seeking to play down its role in determining whether to reopen the case because the unit involved was no longer based in Iraq, shifting the onus to Army and Pentagon leaders to make the decision.
Detailed rules of engagement are generally kept classified to avoid tipping off adversaries about U.S. tactics on the battlefield, Pentagon officials said.
The stark helicopter gunsight video of the July 12, 2007, attack has been widely viewed around the world on the Internet since its release by the group WikiLeaks. The video includes an audio track of the conversation between the helicopter crew and many who have seen it have been shocked at the images and at some of the fliers’ comments.
The two Reuters staff killed in the attack were photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen, 22, and his assistant and driver Saeed Chmagh, 40.
David Schlesinger, Reuters’ editor-in-chief, said: “I would welcome a thorough new investigation. Reuters from the start has called for transparency and an objective inquiry so that all can learn lessons from this tragedy.”
The U.S. military has said an investigation of the incident shortly after it occurred found that U.S. forces were not aware of the presence of the news staffers and thought they were engaging armed insurgents, mistaking a camera for a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.
WikiLeaks said it obtained the video from military whistleblowers and posted it at www.collateralmurder.com.
The video shows an aerial view of a group of men moving about a square in a Baghdad neighborhood. The fliers identified some of the men as armed. The gunsight tracks two of the men, identified by WikiLeaks as the Reuters news staff, as the fliers identify their cameras as weapons.
Human rights lawyers and other experts who have viewed the footage say they are concerned about how the helicopter fliers operated, particularly in opening fire on a van that arrived on the scene after the initial attack and whose occupants began trying to help the wounded.
Chris Cobb-Smith, a former British army officer who has conducted war zone investigations, said knowing what rules of engagement the pilots were operating under was critical to understanding whether they had acted appropriately.
But he said firing on those who came to help the wounded appeared to be a breach of the laws governing military conduct in war. “That is the element that is blatant. That is against all humanitarian law and the rules of conflict — most definitely and without a doubt,” he told Reuters.
Bibi van Ginkel, an international lawyer and senior fellow at the Clingendael Netherlands Institute of International Relations, said the video was only a fragment of evidence and more investigation was required. But she added:
“My first guess would be that a war crime was committed. Very simply speaking, if people are helping the wounded, they are non-combatants. If force is used against them, then that is a war crime,” she said.
Other lawyers and human rights experts pointed out that it would be very difficult to build a case on the video alone.
Anthony Dworkin, the director of the Crimes of War Project, which studies humanitarian law in conflict, said it did not appear that the pilots had intentionally targeted civilians.
“I would be surprised to see, on the basis of this, any sort of military prosecution,” he said. “I think, if anything, it’s more likely to raise issues about the rules of engagement and how clear they are.”
Amnesty International called on Wednesday for an independent, thorough and impartial investigation into the incident shown in the video.
Additional reporting by Luke Baker in Brussels, Alastair Macdonald in Jerusalem; Editing by Frances Kerry