|General George Casey said there was 'some suggestion ...that we turned a blind eye on Iraqi prisoner abuse' [AFP]
The US has defended its record of probing civilian deaths and abuse in Iraq after graphic revelations in leaked secret documents triggered worldwide condemnation.
The whistle-blower WikiLeaks website on Friday released nearly 400,000 classified files on the Iraq war, the biggest leak of its kind in US military history, detailing the deaths of 15,000 more Iraqi civilians than the Pentagon had reported.
Colonel Dave Lapan, Pentagon spokesman, said on Monday the US military never claimed to have an exact count of the number of civilians killed in Iraq.
He noted that estimates made by private organisations of civilian deaths in Iraq also varied.
"Over the years, it has been impossible for the various organisations ... to come to agreement on a specific figure," Lapan said.
But Lapan said WikiLeaks and the Pentagon were working from the same database to collect civilian death toll figures and was sceptical that the group had made any new discovery.
US forces went into morgues to count bodies, said General George Casey, the army chief of staff, who served as the top US military commander in Iraq from 2004-2007.
"I don't recall downplaying civilian casualties," Casey told reporters.
Still, the US military routinely gave lower casualty figures during the war than Iraqi police or hospital
Some of the documents released on Friday contain accounts of Iraqi forces abusing Iraqi prisoners and the US military not investigating those instances.
But US officials on Monday said the military had not systematically ignored cases of torture and abuse of Iraqi prisoners by Iraqi forces.
"That's just not the case," Casey told reporters. "Our policy all along was that where American soldiers encountered prisoner abuse (they were) to stop it and then report it immediately up the US chain of command and the Iraqi chain of command."
Thousands of Iraqi officials have been removed from Iraq's interior ministry after revelations that mainly Sunni prisoners were being held in secret prisons near the 2006-2007 height of the sectarian conflict pitting Iraq's majority Shia Muslims against minority Sunni Muslims.
The US military, having drawn international condemnation in 2004 over the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib jail outside Baghdad, lost the right to detain Iraqis under a bilateral security pact that went into effect in 2009.
White House reaction
Barack Obama, the US president, who opposed the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq launched by his predecessor President George W Bush, formally ended the US combat mission in Iraq in August and has promised to withdraw the last 48,000 US troops from Iraq by the end of next year.
Obama signed three executive orders shortly after taking office, vowing to return America to the "moral high ground" in the so-called war on terrorism.
The implication was that the United States would do more to make sure terror suspects were not tortured or abused - either at the hands of US forces or by governing authorities to whom the detainees were handed over for detention or interrogation.
Yet, in one leaked document from a US military intelligence report filed February 9, 2009 - just weeks after Obama ordered US personnel to comply with the Geneva Conventions - an Iraqi said he was detained by coalition forces at his Baghdad home and was told he would be sent to the Iraqi army if he did not co-operate.
According to the document, the detainee was then handed over to Iraqis where he said he was beaten and given electric shocks.
US interrogators also cleared detainees for questioning, despite signs that they had suffered abuse from Iraqi security forces, the documents show.
One report by a US interrogation detention team based in Baghdad on April 2, 2009, summarises claims made by a prisoner who said he was hog-tied and beaten with a shovel as part of days-long torture ordeal at the hands of the Iraqi army.
The report noted he had a catalogue of "minor injuries," including "rope burns on the back of his legs and a possible busted ear drum."
"We have not turned a blind eye," PJ Crowley, the US state department spokesman, said on Monday, noting that one of the reasons why US troops were still in Iraq was to carry out human rights training with Iraqi security forces.
"Our troops were obligated to report abuses to appropriate authorities and to follow up, and they did so in Iraq," Crowley said. "If there needs to be an accounting, first and foremost there needs to be an accounting by the Iraqi government itself, and how it has treated its own citizens."
Daniel Ellsberg, who is credited for leaking the 1971 Pentagon Papers that exposed secrets about the
Vietnam War, said he was not sure the recently leaked documents would have much of an impact - either in Iraq or in the United States.
"This is official evidence that there was a cover-up of crimes, either by turning suspects over or torturing them directly," Ellsberg told The Associated Press on Monday night.
"I don't have confidence that even a massive change of public opinion will have an effect, but even if there is a small chance it could change policy, it is worth it."