What to Do With Horrific Images from Iraq
HO / Welayat Salahuddin
An image disseminated on the jihadist website Welayat Salahuddin allegedly shows militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) executing dozens of captured Iraqi security force members.
Dec. 16, 2011 -
The U.S. war in Iraq officially ended this month with the withdrawal of all military personnel, bringing an end to the nearly decade-long conflict. Close to 4,500 Americans and about 100,000 Iraqis lost their lives in the war. American taxpayers, for their part, are on the hook for hundreds of billions of dollars spent on the enduring conflict. Many of the more than 32,000 American soldiers wounded in the conflict continue to need care. More than a million Iraqis were displaced trying to escape the violence. The war may be over, but the healing has only begun. In this slide show, we take a look at some of the most iconic images of the Iraq War.
Shock and Awe Operation Shock and Awe marked the beginning of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Heavy bombing lights up the night sky of Baghdad on the second day of the war.
Saddam Hussein Statue The initial campaign proved to be a success. American troops quickly overwhelmed forces loyal to Saddam Hussein. A U.S. Marine armored vehicle tears down a statue of Hussein as both American and Iraqi onlookers cheer. Once the statue is down, jubilant Iraqis ran up to strike the face of the former dictator with their shoes.
Jessica Lynch U.S. Army private first-class Jessica Lynch is rescued by U.S. special forces in April 2003 following her 10-day capture. Lynch, who was only 19 years old at the time, became a national icon following her ordeal. Lynch was badly injured when her convoy was ambushed. She was later rescued by American troops from an Iraqi hospital, but the tale of her ambush was changed into a story of heroism. The real story slowly emerged.
Mission Accomplished On May 1, 2003, President George W. Bush addressed the crew of the U.S.D. Abraham Lincoln and the nation to declare the successful completion of combat operations. A giant "Mission Accomplished" banner was raised during the event. As the insurgency in Iraq heated up the following year, this image would prove to be a headache for the White House.
Hussein Spider Hole In December 2003, American troops uncover the "spider hole" in Ad Dawr in which Hussein was hiding for months following the disintegration of his rule over the country. Hussein was captured, tried by the Iraqis and executed.
Prisoner of War Wearing a black hood on his head, an Iraqi prisoner of war cradles his 4-year-old son while waiting in a holding area for captives.
Fallujah March 2004 marked what would be the beginning of the insurgency that would menace U.S. soldiers as resistance to the American military presence and sectarian tensions boiled over into violent conflict. Following an attack on two civilian vehicles that resulted in the deaths of four contractors, Iraqi men celebrate. The burned and mutilated bodies were dragged, beaten and hung onto a bridge, where Iraqis continued their celebration.
Iraq Casualties Samar Hassan, seen in this photo taken in 2005, knows how quickly tragedy can strike. U.S. soldiers fired on her family, killing her parents, during an evening drive during which they encountered the American patrol.
Abu Ghraib Abu Ghraib prison left an enduring scar on the memories of the Iraqis following Hussein's brutal 24-year reign. Members of the American military maintained the sites cruel legacy by engaging in human rights violations that shook the world. Photos of prisoner abuse and torture, often with American service personnel in the shot, were released in the press in April 2004. The haunting photo of a hooded man seen here arguably is the most enduring image of the American occupation.
Michael Yon/Courtesy of U.S. Army
Soldier and Child A U.S. soldier cradles an Iraqi child who had been killed in a car bomb.
U.S. Department of Defense
Soldier Coffins Fearing the reactions of the public as a result of seeing American soldiers killed in action, the Department of Defense prevented this release of any images depicting these flag-draped coffins. A Freedom of Information Act request, however, later compelled their release.
Families Left Behind On Memorial Day weekend in 2007, a photographer snapped what is one of the most compelling views of the toll inflicted by the Iraq War on American service members and their families. Mary McHugh was engaged to be married to James Regan, a sergeant in the U.S. Army. Before their wedding, Regan was killed by an IED explosion in Iraq. During a visit to Arlington National Cemetery, photographer John Moore snapped this photo of McHugh, who had just looked upon Regan's grave for the first time. Regan is interred in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery along with hundreds of other soldiers killed during the war.
The Shoe Thrown During the waning days of his administration in December 2008, President Bush paid a visit to Iraq. During a press conference hosted by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, an Iraqi reporter offered Bush what he called a "farewell kiss," and threw both of his shoes at Bush. Bush dodged the assault and the reporter was swiftly detained by security agents.
Department of Defense
Sergeant First Class Justin Hathaway walks through a sandstorm at Al Asad Air Force Base in Iraq. With the Iraq War officially over, both American soldiers and civilians, as well as the Iraqi people themselves, are still grappling with the mixed legacy of the protracted conflict.
Read more of Discovery News’ Best of 2011
Deeply disturbing images show Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militants executing soldiers or security force members somewhere in Iraq's Salaheddin province. They were first uploaded on June 14 and soon appeared on various websites and jihadist Twitter accounts, and they have now been published by AFP and other news agencies.
Pictures like these clearly amount to extremist propaganda, so should they have been published? For AFP, the answer is yes -- but not without first taking careful precautions to ensure they were not faked. We also avoided publishing those photos depicting gratuitous violence for its own sake.
At AFP's Middle East headquarters, located in Nicosia, a team of Arabic-speaking journalists constantly monitor radical Islamist websites and social network accounts, looking for news and images coming out of war zones in Iraq and Syria.
"You have to be quick," says Patrick Baz, photo manager for the Middle East and North Africa. "The links can disappear from one minute to the next. And often Twitter will delete accounts with violent content."
These images of mass executions were first made public by the jihadist site Welayat Salahuddin, then spread quickly on Twitter. For AFP, it was clear we had to transmit the images.
We ran these pictures because of their historical importance, attesting to the extreme harshness of the current situation in Iraq. Also, because Agence France-Presse does not typically deliver content directly to consumers (apart from this blog), it sends pictures to client media outlets who then decide whether to publish pictures, according to their own editorial guidelines and practices.
"You have to show what happened," says Baz. "At the moment, no journalist or independent observer can get into jihadist-held areas without facing imminent kidnapping or death. These pictures are the only evidence available. Of course, it's propaganda. These photos are designed to terrorize the enemy. But these are also pictures of historic value, just like those images of Nazi officers executing resistance fighters and Jews."
AFP does not use images of violence with dubious or non-existent news value. Accordingly, we didn't publish a close-up shot of a man who had been repeatedly kicked in the head, or another picture of a militant holding a decapitated head. Broadly speaking, other agencies have the same criteria.
We also needed to be certain that the images hadn't been faked. One of the questions that arose with the first picture of the executions was whether extra bodies had been added into the picture by with Photoshop or some such image-manipulation software, to try to make the photo even more impactful. This old propaganda trick has been used by North Korea to try to dupe the international media. AFP uses forensic software called Tungstene to look for whether a picture has been altered.
It can be complicated to operate -- revealing an alteration made by an expert can take a whole day -- but Tungstene in this case showed that the photos of the ISIL in Iraq had not been significantly manipulated.
An image disseminated on the jihadist website Welayat Salahuddin allegedly shows militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) executing dozens of captured Iraqi security force members.HO / Welayat Salahuddin
"The examination showed a few retouches," says Antonin Thuillier, AFP's Tungstene specialist. "The colors have been over-saturated, perhaps to better highlight the pools of blood. The jihadists' faces have been darkened (see red circle, above). Finally there's some doubt around the smoke in the background. The red spots, in the image below, show two areas of the photo that are identical. The Photoshop clone tool could have been used to hide something behind, or perhaps even some dust on the camera sensor."
The task is complicated by the fact that this type of photo circulates widely online before it is picked up by journalists. Every user or web site could change the image in a myriad of ways, such as adding watermarked logos or commentaries before republishing the picture. "When I find an interesting picture, I try to go back to the original," says Baz. "And if I can't do that, I reframe the image to remove the elements without news value."
Originally, the photo published online contained Arabic phrases. The first Arabic phrase says it is an "Assad al-Rahman al Bilawi alias Abu Abd al-Rahman" operation, the name of a jihadist leader killed by Iraqi forces in Fallujah. The second phrase gives more details: "The liquidation of members of the Safavid army who were fleeing in civilian clothes." (The Safavid dynasty ruled Iran for hundreds of years and converted to Shiite Islam and converted many populations during their conquests. "Safavids" is the nickname given to Shiites by extremist Sunnis.)
In the case of the photo at the top of this page, "the manipulations don't seem to have been done to significantly alter the photo's informational content," says Thuillier. There are no extra bodies or militants added by Photoshop. AFP therefore published the photo, along with a warning alerting clients to possible retouches and adding clearly that this was a photo pulled from the Internet, making it impossible to independently verify the date and location of the image.
"Of course, Tungstene can't detect photos that have been wholly staged," adds Thuillier. "If the jihadists had decided to pile bodies here from another location, or even if people are lying on the floor and pretending to be dead to make the scene more terrifying, the software can't detect that."
But the likelihood of this being staged is low, says Baz. Considering the type of violence known to have been perpetrated by ISIL over recent months in Iraq and Syria, it seems more likely that this was a real event.
"The jihadists don't need to stage incidents," says the photographer, who has covered conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere for nearly 30 years.