WASHINGTON (AP) — Military documents laid bare in the biggest leak of secret information in U.S. history suggest that far more Iraqis died than previously acknowledged during the years of sectarian bloodletting and criminal violence unleashed by the American-led invasion in 2003.
The accounts of civilian deaths among nearly 400,000 purported Iraq war logs released Friday by the WikiLeaks website include deaths unknown or unreported before now — as many as 15,000 by the count of one independent research group.
The field reports from U.S. forces and intelligence officers also indicate U.S. forces often failed to follow up on credible evidence that Iraqi forces mistreated, tortured and killed their captives as they battled a violent insurgency.
Iraq's prime minister accused WikiLeaks of trying to sabotage his re-election hopes by highlighting years-old abuses by Iraqi security forces. A statement released Saturday by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's office said the documents show no proof of any improper treatment of detainees under al-Maliki's administration.
The war logs were made public in defiance of the Pentagon, which insisted that the release would put the lives of U.S. troops and their military partners at risk.
Although the documents appear to be authentic, their origin could not be independently confirmed, and WikiLeaks declined to offer any details about them.
The 391,831 documents date from the start of 2004 to Jan. 1, 2010. They provide a ground-level view of the war written mostly by low-ranking officers in the field. The dry reports, full of military jargon and acronyms, were meant to catalog "significant actions" over six years of heavy U.S. and allied military presence in Iraq.
The Pentagon has previously declined to confirm the authenticity of WikiLeaks-released records. But it has put to work more than 100 U.S. analysts to review what was previously released and has never indicated that any past WikiLeaks releases were inaccurate.
At a news conference in London on Saturday, WikiLeaks said it would soon publish 15,000 additional secret Afghan war documents. The group has published some 77,000 U.S. intelligence reports about the war in Afghanistan in addition to the almost 400,000 alleged secret U.S. documents about the Iraq war.
Casualty figures in the U.S.-led war in Iraq have been hotly disputed.
Iraq Body Count, a private British-based group that has tracked the number of Iraqi civilians killed, said it had analyzed the information and found 15,000 previously unreported deaths. That would raise its total from as many as 107,369 civilians to more than 122,000 civilians.
Al-Jazeera, one of several news organizations provided advance access to the WikiLeaks trove, reported the documents show 285,000 recorded casualties, including at least 109,000 deaths. Of those who died 66,000, nearly two-thirds of the total, were civilians.
The Iraqi government has issued a tally claiming at least 85,694 deaths of civilians and security officials killed between January 2004 and Oct. 31, 2008.
In July of this year, the U.S. military quietly released its most detailed tally to date of the deaths of Iraqi civilians and security forces in the bloodiest years of the war.
That U.S. body count, reported by The Associated Press this month, tallied deaths of almost 77,000 Iraqis between January 2004 and August 2008 — the darkest chapter of Iraq's sectarian warfare and the U.S. troop surge to quell it. The new data was posted on the U.S. Central Command website without explanation.
In 2006 and 2007, the Bush administration and military commanders often played down the extent of civilian carnage from revenge killings, blood feuds and mob-style violence in Iraq, much of which had no direct effect on U.S. forces.
Administration figures repeatedly denied Iraq was sliding into civil war. The war did not begin to turn around in a lasting way until the 2007 increase of U.S. troops and the decision of key Sunni leaders to cut ties with the foreign-led al-Qaida terror group.
Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell condemned the documents' release, saying U.S. enemies could study the reports to "look for vulnerabilities, patterns of behavior, things they could exploit to wage attacks against us in the future."
It was not immediately clear whether WikiLeaks released all the military records in its possession. In some cases, names and other pieces of identifying information appeared to have been blacked out. But it was unclear to what extent WikiLeaks withheld names in response to Pentagon concerns that people could become targets of retribution.
Allegations of torture and brutality by Shiite-dominated security forces — mostly against Sunni prisoners — were widely reported during the most violent years of the war, when the rival Islamic sects turned on one another in Baghdad and other cities. The leaked documents provide a ground's-eye view of abuses as reported by U.S. military personnel to their superiors and appear to corroborate much of the past reporting on such incidents.
The release of the documents comes at a pivotal time for the U.S. in Iraq as the military prepares to withdraw all 50,000 remaining troops from the country by the end of next year. The U.S. military had as many as 170,000 troops in Iraq in 2007.
Violence has declined sharply over the past two years, but near-daily bombings and shootings continue, casting doubt on the ability of Iraqi forces to protect the people.
The situation has been exacerbated by growing frustration among the public over the failure of Iraqi politicians to unite and form a new government. Al-Maliki is struggling to remain in power since his Shiite alliance narrowly lost the March 7 vote to a Sunni-backed bloc led by rival Ayad Allawi.