When two Reuters media workers were killed in Baghdad in the Iraq war, the US military moved rapidly to hide the truth – until WikiLeaks revealed the cover-up.

by | 24 Jul, 2023 | Iraq, journalism, WikiLeaks

One of the final photographs taken by Namir before his murder. A woman, arms outstretched pleading, in al-Amin in Baghdad on 12 July 2007. (Photo: Namir Noor-Eldeen, Reuters]

The horror of seeing a group of men being machine-gunned to death in Baghdad in 2007 came through despite the grainy black and white vision.

The footage was publicly revealed by Julian Assange, WikiLeaks editor-in-chief, at the National Press Club in Washington on 5 April 2010. It become known as ‘Collateral Murder‘.

The story behind the US military coverup of the murders of Namir Noor-Eldeen and Saeed Chmagh, and the ongoing consequences, has now been told in a masterful book by their boss, Reuters bureau chief, Dean Yates titled ‘Line in the Sand’. 

Namir got in an abandoned car off an alleyway to photograph two women wearing traditional black garments and headscarfs walking towards a bullet hole in the windscreen. Who fired the shot is unknown. 

One woman, her arms outstretched, appears to be pleading with Namir. Her face is heavy with weariness.

Below her palms, taking up the bottom half of the photo, is the bullet hole and cracked glass. The other woman’s face is obscured. The woman with her arms extended looks like she is in mourning. 

In Iraq, every woman has lost someone to the war: a son, a daughter, a husband, a relative.

Namir and Saeed can’t see or hear the two American AH-64 Apache helicopters prowling above the sand-coloured maze of al-Amin. 

Reuters media workers, colleagues Namir Noor-Eldeen and Saeed Chmagh. (Photo: Reuters]

The military returned Namir’s cameras a few days after he was killed. They haven’t been tampered with, no photos deleted.

The cameras show the women dressed in black, then, roughly ten minutes later, Humvees at a crossroad, quickly followed by the top of the head of someone who appeared to be falling as dust sprayed off a wall. 

No images of fighting or people running for cover. No gunmen. The next pictures, taken more than three hours later, are of an American soldier sitting in what looked like a tent or barrack. It is slightly out of focus.

Witnesses and residents I’d interviewed in the Reuters office said there hadn’t been any clashes in that part of al-Amin to explain the helicopter strike, nor had they seen gunmen. It was obvious Namir and Saeed weren’t killed in a firefight.

I forwarded a US military spokesman a letter from the Reuters editor-in-chief on 16 July, demanding a full and objective investigation given the evidence the bureau had gathered casting doubt on the military’s version of events. I wrote a story based on the letter. 

In the days that followed, as I interviewed more residents and reflected on Namir’s final photographs, the words that kept forming on my lips were ‘cold-blooded murder’. I’ve come to the Republican Palace, sitting in this small room, convinced my Iraqi staff are right. 

Reuters bureau chief, Dean Yates, visiting one of Saddam’s palaces in Tikrit in Iraq, in late 2003. (Photo: Dean Yates)

I’m also furious that just days ago the military sent heavily armed US and Iraqi troops unannounced to Namir’s family home in Mosul while they were marking the 40-day Muslim mourning period. 

They wanted to see his death certificate, ripped down black mourning banners outside the home, asked neighbours if his family had ties to terrorists. What were they looking for? Justification for having killed Namir? 

The spokesman ignored my angry email. Instead, he invited me to hear the results of the military’s investigation into Namir and Saeed’s deaths.

The briefing is off-the-record, which means I won’t be able to report anything for Reuters. 

While no shooting came from the group that included Namir and Saeed, the command gave the Apaches clearance to attack.

‘What do you mean, no one fired on US forces?’

The presence of armed men was an expression of ‘hostile intent’ and thus the group could be ‘engaged’, the Investigating General says. The military has Rules of Engagement (ROEs) for Iraq, parameters for the use of force based on the Law of Armed Conflict, a collection of international treaties such as the 1949 Geneva Conventions.

My head spins. How can this be hostile intent? No one fired on US forces. I don’t know it yet, but the ROEs define hostile intent as the threat of imminent use of force, where imminent doesn’t necessarily mean immediate or instantaneous. A commander just needs to believe an attack will occur.

An initial burst of fire from one Apache killed seven ‘military-aged’ men, the Investigating General says. We are shown photographs of an AK-47, two RPGs and two cameras that he says were found within a 10-metre radius. The General shows us a written report with timestamps and conversations between the Apache crew. 

Michael and I again ask: ‘Where is the hostile intent if no one fired on US forces?’

‘Carrying weapons is hostile intent,’ the General replies. ‘Every house has an AK-47,’ I say. ‘Yes, but not RPGs and even if they have AK-47s, it’s against the law to have them on the street,’ the General says.

The Investigating General then says he will show us footage from one of the Apaches. I have little time to think before a TV a bit bigger than a shoebox flickers to life. It’s a grainy black and white scene. 

A still from the US military helicopter a split second before gunning down Namir and Saeed with a group of others on a Baghdad street. (Image: US Defense Department; supplied by WikiLeaks)

The tape is stopped. I lean forward, head in my hands. I can’t remember if Michael says anything, but I’m speechless. I can barely breathe. Oh my God. Namir looked so suspicious.

The Investigating General keeps talking.

Even if the crew determined Namir was pointing a camera at the Humvees, the helicopters would probably still have opened fire because insurgents filmed their attacks on US forces, he says. Such recordings were uploaded to the internet for propaganda purposes. The crouching, the peering around the corner, was also an expression of ‘hostile intent’.

We ask for copies of the video and photographs, and a file the General has. The answer is no. Reuters must make a request for the materials under the US Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) via the Pentagon.

The Generals don’t apologise for the ‘firefight’ lie or seek to explain. I’m too shocked to remonstrate. With no warning, we’ve just watched Namir and Saeed walk into their deaths. 

The meeting is over. We thank the Generals and leave. I walk out into bright summer sunshine with one image seared into my brain: Namir peering around that corner.

The book, ‘Line in the Sand: A life-changing journey through a body and a mind after trauma’, published by Pan Macmillan Australia. (Photo: Dean Yates)

Two days later I send an email marked confidential to the bureau chiefs of other foreign news agencies who, like Reuters, employ mostly Iraqi staff. I give them a lot of detail so they can better protect their teams.

I suggest they share the information during a general chat about security. Please don’t mention Namir and Saeed, I add.

The Apache crew was very suspicious of the group of men, I write. They saw gunmen and two men with ‘objects’ slung over their shoulders; Namir and Saeed both carried a camera.

The Apache was told there were no US soldiers or Iraqi security forces near the group. What happened next was Namir could be seen walking to a small intersection, I write.

My 600-word email omits the fact that Crazy Horse 1–8 got permission to open fire and was manoeuvring into position to shoot before Namir looked around the corner. Just two days and I’m blaming Namir for the attack.

In late 2009, at a US military base near Baghdad, an army intelligence analyst called Chelsea Manning hears colleagues discussing a classified video. It’s footage from the gun-camera of Crazy Horse 1–8 showing Namir and Saeed being killed.

Manning has watched what she describes as ‘countless war-porn type videos depicting combat’ and isn’t too interested until she sees Crazy Horse 1–8 open fire on the minivan. 

As her colleagues, officers among them, debate whether that attack violated the rules of engagement for Iraq, Manning wants to know more. She finds news stories on Namir and Saeed and the US government’s refusal to give Reuters a copy of the tape. 

The strike on the minivan especially troubles her, as does the way the Crazy Horse 1–8 crew dehumanise the men on the ground as they speak.

Manning copies the tape and the ROEs, planning to give them to Reuters in London after her deployment ends, so the organisation has more context for what happened. 

In early 2010, she decides to send the material to an obscure anti-secrecy group called WikiLeaks instead so Reuters might get the information sooner.

Julian Assange cuts a striking figure at the National Press Club in Washington on 5 April 2010. It’s been nearly three years since Namir and Saeed were killed. 

Late 30s, slim, blond hair, Julian Assange is little known outside computer hacker circles, but will become one of the most recognisable men in the world after unveiling the video he famously calls ‘Collateral Murder’. 

The footage horrifies people around the globe.

International legal experts call the attack on the minivan that killed Saeed a war crime, a violation of the Geneva Conventions. Critics liken the pilot banter to teenagers playing video games. WikiLeaks puts a 17-minute edited version and the full 38-minute tape on the internet

The most controversial footage in the history of war is a mouse-click away.

This is an edited extract from the new book written by ex-Reuters bureau chief Dean Yates, titled  ‘Line in the Sand: A life-changing journey through a body and a mind after trauma’, published by Pan Macmillan Australia.

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Dean Yates

Dean Yates is a workplace mental health expert, public speaker, podcast host, and journalist. He is an outspoken advocate on mental health, press freedom and government accountability. He worked for 26 years at Reuters, the international news agency. He was bureau chief in Iraq, responsible for 100 people, and later head of mental health strategy from 2017-2020. View all posts by