Return to Ishaqi: The Pentagon's Shaky Self-Exoneration

It seems that the Pentagon, that veritable fount of veracity, has probed itself for the alleged execution-style slaying of civilians in Ishaqi, and found that the operation – which left 11 civilians dead, including five children under the age of five – was in fact an exemplary feat of arms, strictly by the book.

Everything happened pretty much the way they originally said it happened: soldiers seeking a dastardly al-Qaeda operative (now more circumspectly described as a man suspected of being an al-Qaeda operative) took fire during the pursuit and responded with heavy force: air power and ground assault on the suspect’s redoubt, which just happened to be someone’s house. In the course of the textbook op, which we’re told killed the al-Qaednik and a local bombmaker, there were also three "noncombatant" deaths, and an estimated nine "collateral deaths." (The difference between these two categories is not explained. And of course it doesn’t matter to the innocent people killed; whether they are "non-combatants" or "collaterals," they’re still just as dead. No doubt there are strict bureaucratic guidelines behind these distinctions.) These deaths are regrettable, of course, but such things happen as unintended consequences of noble causes, and no doubt there will be a bit of loose change doled out to the innocent victims’ families.

So that’s that then. Nothing to see here, time to move on… And you know, I really wish we could. No one here takes any pleasure or satisfaction from reports of yet another egregious failure of the human spirit, yet another eruption of the bestiality that lies buried in the mud of our brains. This is true in any case, anywhere, but it is doubly true if the crimes are done in the name of your own country. And any time that such a report turns out to be mistaken is a cause for joy.

By the way, this is what the powerful – and their sycophants – always fail to understand: no genuine dissident is happy about dissenting. You dissent because you see injustice, crime, corruption and needless death being wrought by the power structures of your own society. You dissent because so many lies have been forced down your throat, and you just want to know the truth, as far as it can be known, you just want to speak the truth, whatever it may be. You dissent because of the reality that you see. And this is a painful thing; it’s like watching a family member go bad, like learning your own father is a killer, that your mother is thief. No one wants to believe evil of their own country, their own society; but sometimes the very ideals that you were given by your society – a commitment to justice, to truth, the belief in the inherent worth and moral agency of every individual human being – compels you to confront the reality of the crimes and corruption of the leaders and institutions of that same society.

It isn’t fun; there’s no pleasure in it. Especially if, with Dostoevsky, you believe that "each is responsible for all," that you yourself are implicated in every failure of humanity. Bob Dylan captured the essence of this kind of dissent well when he sang of the great iconoclast, Lenny Bruce:

He fought a war on a battlefield Where every victory hurts.

So yes, it would be nice to be able to accept at face value the Pentagon’s exonerating version of the incident at Ishaqi. (Relatively speaking, of course; that is to say, in the murderous context of the vast atrocity that is the Iraq war itself, it would be better to accept the Pentagon’s assertion that the deaths of up these innocent people were simply the inevitable and unintended by-product of urban warfare, rather than the more grisly alternative. It would be good to have this slight mitigation of the general horror.) But a commitment to the truth – and a refusal to succumb to historical amnesia – prevents such an automatic acceptance. For this is the same Pentagon that whitewashed the Haditha killings not once, but twice (with two different stories) after the massacre there last year. This is the same Pentagon whose innumerable investigations into itself during these crimeful Bush years have only managed to peel a few "bad apples" plucked from the bottom of the barrel, despite the extraordinarily vast and systematic nature of the regimens of torture and atrocity established by the Bush Administration, as Amnesty International has pointed out in an important new study. Such elaborate systems cannot have been constructed and operated without orders – direct and implied – from the very highest reaches of government and the military command. Yet the Pentagon has employed oceans of whitewash to protect the brass, while grudgingly throwing a few bits of cannon fodder and trailer trash – as the Bushist elite would see them – on the fire to serve, in the words of Breaker Morant, as "scapegoats of the empire."

Thus, in a general sense, you would be foolish to accept the result of any of the Pentagon’s self-investigations at face value, without independent corroboration. This kind of cynicism is, again, painful and unpleasant, but it has been forced upon us by the many, many lies that have emanated from that five-sided fortress over many decades. This is not to say that every Pentagon self-exoneration is false or incomplete, or that there are not many honorable military investigators doing sterling – and thankless – work. (The current Haditha probe – although belated, and problematic in many respects, is an example of this.) It’s merely acknowledging the indisputable reality of history – and certainly of the current war – that the Pentagon brass habitually lie and dissemble and look the other way when it comes to allegations of atrocities by US forces. It’s only prudent to reserve judgment on any institution that investigates itself for wrongdoing. Or put it this way: if you’re ever charged with murder or bank fraud or dope dealing or tax dodging, ask the cops if you can investigate yourself, and see what they say.

But the Ishaqi exoneration warrants skepticism not only in this general sense, but also in its particulars. From press accounts of the report, it largely reiterates the Pentagon’s original storyline, while enlarging the death count from the original "four civilians, including one child," which it had held to until this week, when the Haditha story spilled out. And the report apparently just dismisses out of hand the large amount of credible evidence that contradicts the Pentagon’s latest story.

First is the photographic evidence: pictures taken of the aftermath by Agence France Presse, and a video that emerged this week on BBC. These clearly dispute the Pentagon’s account, which holds that the house was first raked with gunfire, then attack by helicopter gunships, then finally bombed by American jets: a massive barrage of firepower that left the house in ruins. But the video shows that part of the house was left standing. The photographs, which have been widely available for months, show five dead children, one of them only a few months old. They have been laid out by grieving relatives. Their bodies show no signs of having been ripped up or damaged in the course of an all-out air and ground assault; as the BBC’s John Simpson points out, they had not been crushed by the collapse of the house, as the Pentagon claimed. Instead, they are unmarked, their clothes dusty but in most cases untorn. In the photographs I saw, one child clearly has blood oozing from the back of her head, while the baby has a hole in his forehead, and other damage to his face. The other children are laid on their back, with their wounds invisible, their bodies remarkably whole. Simpson, shown viewing the film, said it was clear that the children had been shot.

Second is the testimony of the villagers, and of two officials of the U.S.-backed Iraqi police, Major Ali Ahmed and Colonel Farouq Hussein. These are men who risk their lives by their cooperation with the Coalition. The villagers say soldiers entered the house and killed the occupants; the house was later hit by the helicopter then bombed, apparently to cover up the killings, some of the villagers surmised. The Iraqi police said "all the victims had gunshot wounds to the head." Later, a Knight-Ridder reporter saw a preliminary report indicating that the 11 victims had multiple wounds. This tallies with Simpson’s viewing, which showed that one of the dead children had been shot in the side. Everyone who saw or examined the bodies agreed that the victims had been shot, most likely by bullets from the large pile of American-issue cartridges found inside the house, which can also be seen on the video.

Also dismissed by the Pentagon is the testimony of Ahmed Khalaf, brother of house’s owner, who told AP that nine of the victims were family members and two were visitors, adding, "the killed family was not part of the resistance, they were women and children. The Americans have promised us a better life, but we get only death."

Not a single villager, not a single local police official agrees with the Pentagon version of the attack. Are they all lying, even the "collaborators" with the occupation? Not likely. Are they confused or uncertain about the exact sequence of events? Naturally; the only Iraqis who know exactly what happened in that house are dead. Are there discrepancies between the early reports on the bodies’ conditions, i.e., where they all shot in the head, or were some shot in other parts of their bodies, and were they all bound before they were shot, or just some of them, or perhaps none of them? Yes, there are discrepancies. The video, seen in its incomplete form on BBC, does not clearly bear out the charge that the victims had been bound. The video doesn’t show all the victims, but those being pulled from the house do not appear to be bound, although in the version I saw, most of the bodies shown had already been wrapped in rugs or blankets.

But is there any disputing the photographic evidence that the victims, particularly the children, were shot, not crushed by the collapsing walls? No, this reality cannot be denied, despite the Pentagon’s report. Is there any disputing the evidence that the children were killed by single shots, and not, say, riddled with bullets in the course of a cross-fire between US forces and insurgents? No, this reality cannot be denied either. Someone fired a single shot into the bodies of every child on display in the photographs, which were taken by a Western news agency, and corroborated by a representative of another Western news agency, Associated Press, who was also on the scene after the attack.

What can we conclude from all this? That there was indeed a Haditha-style execution of the innocent at Ishaqi? No; the limited amount of evidence that we can gather on the incident – at a distance, from press reports – does not on its face categorically prove a deliberate massacre. To categorically prove such an allegation – or categorically disprove it – would require a thorough, completely independent investigation.

We can say that the available evidence gives many deeply troubling indications that some kind of atrocity indeed occurred at Ishaqi. And we can say that key portions of the Pentagon’s self-exoneration are flatly contradicted by photographic evidence, and also by the credible testimony from villagers, US-backed Iraqi officials and Western news agencies (including Reuters, Knight-Ridder, AFP and AP) as to the nature of the victims’ fatal wounds.

The Pentagon’s hastily-announced report on Ishaqi does not answer all the questions and charges raised by the incident; indeed, it seems not to have even addressed some of them. The whole truth of what happened in the village will remain uncertain until it can be investigated by an independent, impartial and authoritative agency. And we know this will never happen.

Finally, let’s put the incident in its proper context by quoting the conclusion from our original post on Ishaqi:

We know that the American troops who caused the deaths of these children – either by tying them up and shooting them, an unspeakable atrocity, or else "merely" by storming or bombing a house full of civilians in a night raid "with both air and ground assets" – were sent to Iraq on a demonstrably false mission to "disarm" weapons that did not exist and take revenge for 9/11 on a nation that had nothing to do with the attack. And we now know that the White House – and George W. Bush specifically – knew all along that the intelligence did not and could not support the public case he had made for the war.

We know that the only reason that this dead baby has his arm frozen to his lifeless face is that three years ago this week, George W. Bush gave the order to begin the unprovoked, unjust and unnecessary invasion of Iraq. He hasn’t fired a single shot or launched a single missile; he hasn’t tortured or killed any prisoners; he hasn’t kidnapped or beheaded civilians or planted bombs along roadsides, in mosques or marketplaces. Yet every single atrocity of the war – on both sides – and every single death caused by the war, and every act of religious repression perpetrated by the extremist sects empowered by the war, is the direct result of the decision made by George W. Bush three years ago. Nothing he says can change this fact; nothing he does, or causes to be done, for good or ill, can wash the blood of these children – and the tens of thousands of other innocent civilians killed in the war – from his hands.

Note: "Ishaqi" now seems to be the preferred transliteration of the town”s name. In our earlier reports, we used "Isahaqi," one of several versions that came out in the early news reports.

UPDATE: The BBC reports this afternoon that the Iraqi government has officially rejected the Pentagon’s investigation into the Ishaqi killings. Excerpt:

The Iraqi government has rejected the findings of a US military investigation into the deaths of 11 civilians in the village of Ishaqi, north of Baghdad.A spokesman for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki said the report, which cleared the US soldiers of wrongdoing, was unfair. The government will demand an apology and compensation, the spokesman said.

Chris Floyd, Global Eye columnist for the Moscow Times, is the author of Empire Burlesque: The Secret History of the Bush Regime.