To some, the thousands of confidential U.S. military field reports released Friday amount to a damning indictment of the United States' role in Iraq, providing long-awaited figures on the number of civilians killed and graphic details of war crimes gone unpunished by Iraqi troops.
To others, however, the trove of documents offers no great revelations, simply adding important first-hand observations to our knowledge of the war.
What no one disputes is that the piles of information, released by whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks, offer fascinating, matter-of-fact accounts of day-to-day life on the front lines of a long and gruelling war.
For WikiLeaks, it was the second major dissemination of classified U.S. military documents since July, when it published more than 70,000 files on the Afghan war. The two incidents represent the largest security breaches of their kind in U.S. military history, and have drawn a sharp rebuke from the Pentagon.
"We deplore WikiLeaks for inducing individuals to break the law, leak classified documents and then cavalierly share that secret information with the world," said Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell.
The nearly 400,000 documents are "Sigacts," military jargon for reports of significant activity, covering a period between the start of 2004 and the end of 2009.
The material was given ahead of time to a handful of international media outlets, as well as the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a British not-for-profit organization, which shared it with Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-headquartered cable news channel. By agreement, the organizations kept the contents of the documents secret until Friday, when they went public.
The media organizations, however, took different tacks in reporting the contents of the files, and had widely varying assessments of their significance.
"The sheer magnitude of data contained in the secret files reveals a graphic narrative of the war that goes far beyond any information about the conflict ever released into the public domain," wrote Al-Jazeera in an online summary of the dossier. "What has been uncovered often contradicts the official narrative of the conflict."
Al-Jazeera highlighted one of the documents' key revelations: the deaths of some 109,000 people, including more than 66,000 civilians. The total had previously never been released, as U.S. and British military officials have insisted they do not keep a running total of the number of civilians killed in the conflict.
The Guardian, a British newspaper, picked up on reports of the torture of detainees in the custody of Iraqi soldiers and police, including six incidents in which people were apparently killed. One graphic report describes a video of Iraqi Army soldiers - one of whom is identified by name and rank - beating and shooting a bound prisoner in the street. That report, like many others detailing abuse, was apparently ignored and the soldiers involved not investigated, the paper reported.
In a series of articles, The New York Times laid out many more of the incidents described in the documents in detail, including a February, 2007, fight when an American helicopter killed two Iraqi insurgents who may have been attempting to surrender. The paper identified another intriguing theme in the documents: that Iran had provided support to Shiite fighters and even fought directly with American troops.
However, the paper poured cold water on others' assessments of the documents' significance, asserting that they contain "no earthshaking revelations," but simply provide interesting details and context on the war. It also noted that the documents were marked at one of the lowest levels of classification by the U.S. government.
Le Monde was equally careful in describing the nature of the documents, noting that they contain no reports from special forces or spies and discuss many of the major events of the conflict only in vague generalities.
The French daily, however, provided the most human analysis of the material's importance, both in describing the heavy toll the fighting has taken on Iraqi civilians and the rare opportunity to view the war from the point of view of average soldiers.
"The files also offer, for the first time, a look 'from inside' at the conduct of the occupation and its practices," the paper wrote. "They tell of the boredom, the absurdity, the daily stress of the soldiers."Report Typo/Error