Much of the attention surrounding the WikiLeaks document dump will, predictably enough, focus on a single incident of two insurgents being killed after they tried to surrender to an Apache helicopter and, more disturbingly, the widespread abuse of detainees by Iraq forces, apparently with a blind eye being turned by the US military.
Some of the reporting of the documents is distinctly tendentious. Take for instance this from the Guardian. The headline states as fact that "Apache helicopters kill 14 civilians". The source for this? A single Iraq informant, speaking to an interpreter for the US military. In addition, an Iraqi colonel said the number was 12.
Any journalist who has worked in Iraq (and I spent much of 2004 and 2005 there) knows that casualty figures from Iraqis were extremely unreliable and often based on rumour, exaggeration or personal/political agendas and prejudices. In the US report, the figures are rightly described as "unconfirmed".
I'm not saying it's not true that 14 were killed. Civilians die in wars, often in very large numbers, and they certainly did so in Iraq. There might well have been that number or more killed by US forces that. But we just don't know and things that we can't be sure about should not be reported as fact just because we might like them to be true.
Interesting to note also to that the Guardian has seen fit to name the interpreter in the incident report, which I won't link to for that reason.
A couple of things to say about the detainee abuse. Clearly, a legacy of Saddam Hussein's regime was a culture of astonishing brutality in Iraq. To expect that indigenous forces would somehow adhere to Western standards of due process is unrealistic. Also, the effort entailed, in the middle of a war, to investigate every allegation and suspicion of abuse by Iraqis would have been a mammoth, and probably impossible, task.
The files show there were occasions recorded when morally courageous US troops did intervene and the blind-eye policy was eventually and rightly changed.
Before I continue, a pet peeve. Can we stop calling them WikiLeaks "the whistle-blowing website"? A whistle-blower is "an informant who exposes wrongdoing within an organisation in the hope of stopping it". First, WikiLeaks does not operate within an organisation. Second, to presuppose they are exposing wrongdoing by leaking classified documents is buying their propaganda. But I digress.
It seems to me that the most significant revelations from the massive WikiLeaks document dump is the apparent extent of Iran's nefarious role in Iraq. Remember how we were always being told that the Bush administration was exaggerating the extent of Iranian influence with the Shia militia groups in order to push along a neocon plot to attack Iran? Well, an initial reading of the documents conducted by the New York Times indicates there wasn't much exaggeration at all.
Come to think of it, None other than Vice President Joe Biden said as recently as August:
Iranian influence in Iraq is minimal. It's been greatly exaggerated.
So exactly how does that statement square with this from the NYT?
The reports make it clear that the lethal contest between Iranian-backed militias and American forces continued after President Obama sought to open a diplomatic dialogue with Iran's leaders and reaffirmed the agreement between the United States and Iraq to withdraw American troops from Iraq by the end of 2011.