WASHINGTON: The United States defended its record probing civilian deaths and abuse in Iraq after graphic revelations in leaked secret documents triggered worldwide concern and condemnation.
The whistleblower website WikiLeaks released an unprecedented 400,000 classified US documents, which recount widespread torture in Iraqi prisons and purport to show 15,000 more civilian deaths than previously disclosed.
General George Casey, the top officer in the US Army who earlier headed forces in Iraq for three of the bloodiest years in the war, denied that the United States “turned a blind eye” to prisoner abuse.
“That’s just not the case. Our policy all along was when American soldiers encountered prisoner abuse, it was to stop it and then report it immediately up the American chain of command and up the Iraqi chain of command,” he said.
Casey also denied undercounting civilian deaths, saying US forces regularly inquired at morgues about death tolls.
“It doesn’t ring true with me. We actively went out and tried to understand the impact of both our actions and the militant groups’ actions on civilians,” he told reporters.
State Department spokesman Philip Crowley also rejected WikiLeaks’s accusations, noting the United States trained Iraqi security forces in human rights.
“That’s one of the reasons why we’ve continued to have military forces in Iraq, to help with ongoing training of Iraqi security forces. And we believe that we’ve seen their performance improve over time,” Crowley said.
WikiLeaks, run by Australian-born computer hacker Julian Assange, said the documents showed a total of 109,032 deaths in Iraq between 2004 and 2009 — 66,081 of them civilians.
Britain, the main US ally in the Iraq war, said there was “no place” for mistreatment of detainees.
“We do as a matter of course investigate any allegation that is made against our troops,” said a spokesman for Prime Minister David Cameron.
Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg on Sunday described allegations against US-led forces in the war logs as “extraordinarily serious” and “quite shocking.”
The Gulf Cooperation Council, which comprises six US-friendly Arab monarchies, urged the United States to “open a serious and transparent investigation” into possible “crimes against humanity.”
Rights groups also called for a probe, with New York-based Human Rights Watch saying the United States may have broken international law if it knowingly transferred prisoners to potential places of abuse.
The documents have had the most impact inside Iraq, where Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has come under renewed pressure as he seeks a second term following hard-fought elections.
The US image worldwide took a severe blow in 2004 when photographs emerged showing US troops humiliating inmates at Abu Ghraib prison. US military courts have found 11 soldiers guilty, handing them sentences of up to 10 years in prison.
US President Barack Obama opposed the Iraq invasion and has declared an end to the US combat mission. But his administration fought the release of the documents, saying they could pose risks to US forces and their assets in Afghanistan and Iraq.
A military task force sifting through the records has determined that WikiLeaks removed the names of the more than 300 individuals who would have been at risk, Pentagon spokesman Colonel Dave Lapan said.
“However, information remains in the documents posted that could lead to the identification of those individuals,” such as their titles or positions, he added.
In an interview with CNN’s Larry King Monday, Assange dismissed Pentagon suggestions that the release put US troops and Iraqis at risk.
“In statements about this issue, the Pentagon is about as credible as North Korea. There are no names in the documents that we have released,” he said.
Human rights advocates joined the Pentagon in criticizing the group after it published 77,000 classified US military documents on the war in Afghanistan in July that identified Afghan informants for the US military, putting their lives at risk.
But US critics said the episode highlighted the government’s excessive use of secrecy labels on documents that even the Pentagon describes as “mundane.”
“There are several things the US could do to reduce more of these unauthorized disclosures and one of them is to drastically cut back on the scale of classification,” said Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy.