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A Formula for Slaughter

On the American rules of engagement in the Iraqi air war.

| Wed Jan. 11, 2006 4:00 AM EST

A little over a year ago, a group of Johns Hopkins researchers reported that about 100,000 Iraqi civilians had died as a result of the Iraq war during its first 14 months, with about 60,000 of the deaths directly attributable to military violence by the U.S. and its allies. The study, published in The Lancet, the highly respected British medical journal, applied the same rigorous, scientifically validated methods that the Hopkins researchers had used in estimating that 1.7 million people had died in the Congo in 2000. Though the Congo study had won the praise of the Bush and Blair administrations and had become the foundation for UN Security Council and State Department actions, this study was quickly declared invalid by the U.S. government and by supporters of the war.

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This dismissal was hardly surprising, but after a brief flurry of protest, even the antiwar movement (with a number of notable exceptions) has largely ignored the ongoing carnage that the study identified.

One reason the Hopkins study did not generate sustained outrage is that the researchers did not explain how the occupation had managed to kill so many people so quickly -- about 1,000 each week in the first 14 months of the war. This may reflect our sense that carnage at such elevated levels requires a series of barbaric acts of mass slaughter and/or huge battles that would account for staggering numbers of Iraqis killed. With the exception of the battle of Falluja, these sorts of high-profile events have simply not occurred in Iraq.

Mayhem in Baiji

But the Iraq war is a twenty-first century war and so the miracle of modern weaponry allows the U.S. military to kill scores of Iraqis (and wound many more) during a routine day's work, made up of small skirmishes triggered by roadside bombs, sniper attacks, and American foot patrols. In early January 2006, the New York Times and the Washington Post both reported a relatively small incident (not even worthy of front page coverage) that illustrated perfectly the capacity of the American military to kill uncounted thousands of Iraqi civilians each year.

Here is the Times account of what happened in the small town of Baiji, 150 miles north of Baghdad, on January 3, based on interviews with various unidentified "American officials":

"A pilotless reconnaissance aircraft detected three men planting a roadside bomb about 9 p.m. The men ‘dug a hole following the common pattern of roadside bomb emplacement,' the military said in a statement. ‘The individuals were assessed as posing a threat to Iraqi civilians and coalition forces, and the location of the three men was relayed to close air support pilots.'

"The men were tracked from the road site to a building nearby, which was then bombed with ‘precision guided munitions,' the military said. The statement did not say whether a roadside bomb was later found at the site. An additional military statement said Navy F-14's had ‘strafed the target with 100 cannon rounds' and dropped one bomb."

Crucial to this report is the phrase "precision guided munitions," an affirmation that U.S. forces used technology less likely than older munitions to accidentally hit the wrong target. It is this precision that allows us to glimpse the callous brutality of American military strategy in Iraq.

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