|Motive for Baghdad Helicopter Massacre a Mystery
by Brian Dominick
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.