Uncounted Dead

How many Iraqis have died in the war and occupation? The U.S. isn't keeping count.

| Tue Mar. 30, 2004 4:00 AM EST

More than a year after the launch of the Iraqi War, the U.S. has no answer to a fairly straightforward question: how many Iraqis have been killed in the invasion and occupation of their country? The U.S. can't say how many Iraqis have been killed for a very simple reason: it doesn't keep count.

"We don't keep a list. It's just not policy," Pentagon spokeswoman Lieutenant Commander Jane Campbell explained to the New York Times earlier this month. The Pentagon may not keep track, but several organizations--with far fewer resources than the U.S. government--do.

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The Iraqi Body Count Project, which tracks press accounts, puts the number of Iraqi civilians killed up to now at between 8,790 and 10,639. Last month, a report released by the influential Project on Defense Alternatives (PDA) stated that between 7,800-10,700 Iraqi combatants and between 3,200-4,300 civilians died during the combat phase of the war. The numbers were arrived at using journalistic surveys of Iraqi hospitals and death certificates, interviews with Iraqi military commanders, and other news reports, as well as U.S. records of its military operations.

The PDA charges that the Department of Defense has sought to mislead the public about the human toll of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. According to the PDA, the military exaggerated the extent to which its "precision warfare" minimized civilian casualties even as it claimed that it was impossible to get an accurate estimate of the dead. The military compounded this "casualty agnosticism" during the most publicized of wars with "casualty irrelevance" -- arguing that the body account was not an appropriate marker by which to judge the war’s success or failure.

When, in July of 2003, the BBC asked Coalition Military Commander U.S. Lieutenant General Rick Sanchez about the Iraqi dead, he said:

"No, we do not know what the exact numbers were. Even now, when we conduct engagements, normally what will happen, according to the cultural beliefs, the dead are removed very quickly, so we cannot establish those numbers. At this point, we are not attempting to establish the numbers of Iraqis who were killed during the conflict. In terms of compensation, payments are not standard during wartime. That is something that would have to be addressed later on, especially in co-ordination with an Iraqi government once it is established."

U.S. officials termed civilians killed and maimed during the war regrettable "collateral damage." Human rights groups particularly criticized the use of cluster bombs by the military. Many of the fragments left by those bombs -- bomblets -- failed to explode at the time and are continuing to kill and maim civilians. As the Village Voice reports:

"The bomblets look like fun to kids. Shiny, tossable pieces of metal, they resemble a large D battery or a small hand grenade. Attached to the bottom are long, white ribbons, rather like streamers a child might fasten to the handlebars of a bike. Human Rights Watch (HRW) estimates that coalition forces left 2 million of these little bombs all over Iraq, killing or injuring perhaps a thousand civilians. Cluster munitions, the group reports, caused more harm to noncombatants than any other weapon during the war."

The practice of casualty agnosticism has continued following the end of hostilities -- even as Iraqi civilians continue to be killed by bomblets and at U.S. checkpoints. No record is kept of the number of Iraqis--surely in the hundreds--killed by suicide bombers. The Washington Post says that:

"Historically, the Pentagon has not tried to count civilian casualties and losses resulting from U.S. military action. Military officials have given various reasons for this, citing principally the time and resources involved and the difficulty of separating damage caused by U.S. forces from damage caused by the enemy."

Casualty agnosticism, of course, has a clear political rationale: the U.S.’s fear that reports of heavy civilian casualties will shake the fragile domestic support for the Iraqi war and occupation and further stoke the overwhelming foreign opposition to its actions in Iraq. As John Pike, founder of the Virginia-based military think-tank GlobalSecurity.org argues, this a lesson the Pentagon learned from Vietnam: "… the military used the body count in Vietnam and have been allergic to it every since."

The U.S. also insists that it is under no legal obligation to compensate the families of those who were wrongfully killed or injured by American soldiers.

U.S. Captain Jonathan Tracy, the lawyer in charge of handling the Iraqi claims, believes that the government has been charitable in providing any monetary compensation at all:

"There's nothing out there that legally forces us to pay them…It's gratuitous. The point behind the policy is to build friendly relations."

In fact, the "sympathy payments" made by the United States government have been pitiful. As the Christian Science Monitor reports:

"So far, the US military has paid out $2.2 million to Iraqi civilians in response to a flood of claims of wrongful or negligent injuries or death at the hands of US forces. In total, the military has received 15,000 claims, 5,600 of which it has accepted.

In distributing such payments, the military says they are not accepting liability or responsibility, and in fact no soldier has ever faced charges for illegally killing an Iraqi civilian. In some cases, victims must waive their right to take further legal action in order to receive the money."

The U.S. has not made the application process easy. The burden of proof lies with the claimants, who wait for hours in long lines to present their case -- which may or may not be referred for further consideration. They have to provide death certificates and eyewitness accounts. If not for the work of Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC) and other human rights groups, many claimants would be unable to put their case together at all. As CIVIC's founder Marla Ruzicka says:

"We go door-to-door, we check hospital records and death certificates to verify. Our work is very accurate. We know if we are trying to get assistance to people, if we have one false claim it could throw out all of our claims."

Ruzicka has some allies in the U.S. Congress. Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy has authored a measure, passed last year, providing that part of the reconstruction aid allocated to Iraq be used to compensate innocent civilians hurt in the course of the fighting.

The Weekly Standard points out that human rights groups' fears of hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties have been proven wrong. It goes on to argue (correctly, and, for current purposes, irrelevantly) that many more Iraqis would have been killed had Hussein's regime remained in place than have been killed during and after the war:

"How many Iraqis were saved by the use of force against Saddam can be counted in several ways. At a bare minimum, several thousand Iraqis were saved from being killed in individual political murders. This includes political prisoners (including children) who poured from Saddam's dungeons at liberation, Shia activists, other dissenters, and military men suspected of disloyalty. Toppling Saddam also saved several thousand more at dire risk from his gradually rising violence against the Shia. If the Shia or Kurds were targeted with wholesale murder, as seemed increasingly likely, the regime could easily have resumed killing at its historic rate of 15,000 to 20,000 deaths a year. Specifically, the West's already existing threat to use force inside Iraq to protect Kurdistan--a threat whose credibility might well have collapsed if the Coalition had crumbled last year--saved tens of thousands more from certain death every year it was in place.

Of course, saving Iraqi lives was not prime motive for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The yet to be found WMDs -- the ones that President George Bush told reporters at last week's black-tie dinner "have got to be here somewhere" as slides showed him looking under a chair and other Oval Office hiding spots -- were. (For a good account of this low moment, see David Corn's eyewitness account.)

The rights and wrongs of the war are a separate issue from whether it is appropriate to keep track of those who died during it. The Bush administration, deliberately and unfortunately, has created the impression that the United States does not care how many Iraqi civilians have been killed and injured thus far or about how their families will cope with the emotional and financial burdens incurred by those losses.

Keeping count of the Iraqi dead is the right thing to do -- both morally and politically -- and so are just monetary compensations. If the U.S. wants to teach Iraqis about accountability, it should set an example by keeping this most important of counts.