Counting the Iraqi Dead

Tallying the cost of war, and holding power accountable.


Every day in Iraq an average of 36 civilians are killed — by U.S. bombs and guns, by Sunni insurgents or Shiite death squads, by Islamic terrorists, or inadvertently in cross-fire. Over the last three years the death toll has steadily climbed; almost 38,000 Iraqi civilians are estimated to have been killed since U.S. troops invaded Iraq in March, 2003.

The source of this number is the Iraq Body Count website (www.iraqbodycount.net). The site’s co-founder, John Sloboda, says it’s probably an undercount, but it’s at least an “irrefutable bedrock,” based on daily reports collected from more than a 150 news sources and corroborated by 16 IBC volunteers, who’ve been doing this work every day since the U.S. invaded Iraq in March 2003.

In the months before, Sloboda, a British academic, and his colleague, Hamit Dardagan—profiled in the May/June issue of Mother Jones—were outraged over the impending war and wanted to hold the Bush administration accountable for its actions. Warring nations, Sloboda felt, were subject to a “moral imperative,” under the Geneva Conventions, to keep track of those they killed—and it was clear to him the U.S. government wouldn’t be counting, any more than they had during the Afghanistan campaign of 2001. Sloboda and Dardagan, then, decided they would take on the task. “Our effort was part of the campaign to stop the war,” Sloboda says, “by basically saying to the government, ‘You won’t get away with this. We will splash who you kill across every front page in the country.’” Now, more than three years later, IBC’s has been the only consistent daily count with a proven methodology.

Sloboda is a part-time professor of psychology and the executive director of the Oxford Research Group, a non-profit organization promoting non-violent solutions to conflict. He works on Iraq Body Count nights and weekends at home in Stafford, 130 miles north of London, where he was when I recently spoke with him by phone.

Mother Jones: Would you say your work counting Iraqi civilian deaths has in some way proven that citizens can in a concrete way hold their governments accountable when they go to war?

John Sloboda: Yes. If you go to war, it’s your job to know who you kill. That’s what we want to do, is build up a head of international support both within civil society and within governments who care about this sort of thing, and get international law changed. The main thing is to get the casualty counts onto the international agenda, as a moral imperative of warring parties to report, fund, and take responsibility for.

MJ: Why should governments be responsible?

JS: The government responsibility, we think, arises logically from the Geneva Conventions under the Conduct of War, to which every member of the United Nations is signed up. And these place, on competent nations, the responsibility to do all in their power to protect civilians. And the main thing you can do to protect civilians is not let them die. Keeping them alive, if you’re ranking the things to do to protect civilians, is number one.

When they die, whether they die directly from your bombs, or they die in the cross-fire of the battle between you and the opponent, or they die in the break down of facilities, health care, etcetera, as a result of the fighting, or break down in law and order, or anything, it doesn’t matter, it’s your responsibility. It’s happening on your watch, to use a much-maligned phrase.

That was particularly so during the war itself, because no one else was responsible for what was happening at that point, other than America, and well, Britain, to a lesser extent. But it certainly became absolutely and utterly legally binding from May 23, 2003, when the United Nations Security Council actually authorized the coalition to run the country. So from May 23 to July 1, 2004, when the Iraqi interim government came into it, for those 13 months, America and Britain were the government of Iraq. There was no other government. They were the government. So, during that period they had even a greater responsibility to protect civilians and to account for what happened.

MJ: The Department of Defense puts out a report titled “Measuring Stability,” which goes to Congress. Does that mean they’re counting?

JS: No. This is battle reports. What happens is, after every sortie, every soldier, every airman has to report to their superior their best estimate of who was killed, etcetera. But they don’t wait around to go back and count. And so, one soldiers says, ‘Well, I got five,’ and another soldiers says, ‘Well, I got three.’ And that’s just all added together.

What we’re interested in is innocent death, and when you’re lobbing artillery over a wall, you can’t know who’s civilian or who’s not. Only the people who stay behind to pick up the pieces can do that kind of assessment. Hospital and ambulance workers, aid workers, family members, witnesses, these are the people who can tell you who was innocent and who was not.

MJ: Do you get casualty figures directly from Baghdad morgue?

JS: Occasionally, journalists would show up at the morgue and talk to a senior official, who would give a particular snapshot and say things like, “In the last month we’ve had so many. And we’re getting them in at a rate of such and such a day.” But again, it’s not consistent, and what would be really great is to get hold of a senior official who would actually give us an accurate report week-by-week, month-by-month, of the whole picture. But it’s patchy.

MJ: Are you in touch with other people in Baghdad?

JS: We try. We are not there personally, of course. And we don’t plan to be, so we have to rely on contacts we have there. Getting the information is very difficult. Most Westerners don’t dare go out of their hotel rooms because the security situation is so bad. I’ve recently spoken to international workers who are there for humanitarian reasons or other reasons, and these people never go outside the Green Zone. It’s just too unsafe.

We have occasionally been given the number of an official or a person, working somewhere in the government. And you sit on the phone for four or five hours or the line is busy. And eventually you get through, but the line is so bad he can’t hear what you’re saying. So you hang up and try to dial again, and that’s another five or six hours. It’s difficult to get through. But we do what we can. There are mainly now Iraqi journalists working for the big news agencies like Reuters and AP and so on, and there are stories on the wire every day. That’s what we have. We know it can’t be everything.

MJ: What about the figures that are now coming from the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Health in Iraq?

JS: Well, they’re doing something, but the tap goes on and off, and it seems to be driven by politics, complicated politics.

MJ: So there hasn’t been a constant count by the Iraqi government?

JS: Nothing constant. And, of course, it is the case now, it is the responsibility of the Iraqi government, you know, because, if you cannot count civilian casualties of your own people, that says something about your capacity. So, I don’t think our position is that it’s only America or Britain’s responsibility to do this. It is a solemn responsibility of the international community, of humanity, which may involve civil society, including NGOs, the Red Cross, the U.N., particular nations. The point is the responsibility is there, as a responsibility on humanity.

You cannot just let innocent people die and not know who they are, and why they died, and not have a proper memorial of them, have a proper investigation of them, the causes of the death. You know, this is the basic norm of civilization, as it were to put each person to rest properly. By basically having an inquest, that’s what it boils down to. I mean every single victim of that and every other war deserves an inquest.

This is the kind of moral blindness that infects us. We do it for our own, but somehow the other, however that other is defined, doesn’t get our same attention. And this is, of course, a general feature of how humans behave to each other. It’s the main problem that humanity faces, that we don’t treat each other as equal, although all of us would say that we should be doing it.

MJ: It seems the site could ultimately function as a memorial?

JS: In a sense, it’s the first sketch of a memorial. It’s developable into one, if the right amount of resources were to be thrown at it, which, of course, is a resource far greater than we have. But basically it could eventually develop into a database where every individual killed had their own line, and we knew their name, and we know their age they were when they died, etcetera. Just as you go to the 9-11 website, there they are. You know a line for each person with a photograph and so on.

But obviously it’s very, very patchy. And we only have names for about 5,000 of the victims, but even that’s quite remarkable considering that that’s not a priority of journalists to record those names, but we still have around 5,000.

So, when I say it’s the responsibility of the international community, America, whatever, obviously the leg work, the actual research work to do this would have to be done by Iraqis, probably with the full support of the Iraqi government. It might even be some kind of census. You may have to knock on every single house. The point is, it’s do-able. And the only thing in the way of it being done is political will and the willingness to assign resources. The resources that would be needed for that would be an infinitesimally small amount compared to the cost of the war. My sense is it would cost hundred of millions. But that’s small change when you’re talking trillions for the war.

MJ: And how do you get people to understand that these numbers relate to real people and their lives?

JS: We can’t project all the messages that are necessary by ourselves. The whole purpose of the point of making this completely public, is that it is a resource for campaigners who want to do that.

It has to be their creativity in their local situation, attached to their issues, which makes this message come across. For example, we’ve been contacted by lawyers wanting to take legal action against various actors in the war on behalf of victims and their families, and they come to us and say, ‘Can you scour your press and media reports? Can you find instances of deaths, where there are named witnesses in news reports that we can then go and find?’ Very often journalists will show up on a scene and talk to the restaurant owner or the shop owner who saw the bomb. If it ever came to a legal case, you would need that shop owner up on a witness stand. And so we’ve been able to provide that kind of information to various legal processes.

MJ: Was a lot of this response in regards to a recent analysis you released on the IBC site, specifically the Dossier of Iraq Civilian Casualties from 2003 to 2005?

JS: To a certain extent I think we underestimated the novelty of what we’d done. I think it’s quite a hard read, that dossier, unless you’re searching for something in particular. It’s packed with information. It’s not been possible to do this kind of breakdown by different weapon types, different places, over time, in any other war in human history, so it takes time for people to catch on how it could be used.

MJ: Were you surprised by what you discovered putting these reports together?

JS: I was personally very surprised. We’re now up towards 10,000 of these incidents. Even from patchy reporting, you know — sometimes the weapon is mentioned, sometimes it’s not, sometimes the name of the person is mentioned, sometimes it’s not, and when you collate that over thousands and thousands of incidents, the patterns start showing up, and you realize that there is a lot of immensely rich detail in these stories from which you can draw conclusions. We hadn’t anticipated that.

MJ: What patterns or revelations have emerged from the data?

JS: One is relative brutality of different kinds of weaponry. The greatest lethality in terms of innocent deaths is from aerial bombardments. And that kind of statistic is reasonable because you know bombs are bigger, and shrapnel fly in all directions. But also, in terms of child casualties, where the age of the victims were known, I think it’s something over 40 percent of all recorded victims of bombs are children. And it’s much, much less for any other weapon.

It’s something about the indiscriminateness of it, when you’re a mile up in the sky. You might be able to target on a building, but you don’t know that there’s a family with six children asleep in that building. Whereas when you’re on the ground, firing a rifle there is some discrimination.

And if you want to ask the question, who has caused the most indiscriminate, innocent death, in this whole sorry affair, it’s undoubtedly American air pilots dropping the bombs. Nothing comes anywhere near that level of lethality or injury. Because the other thing that we can do from these stories is look at the number of injured as well as the number of killed, and the ratio of injured to killed is much higher in bombing as well.

You can talk about motives, an American military commander can say, “We don’t target civilians.” But cruelty is not about your motives, it is about the effect of what you do. And you must know that a bomb cannot be targeted just on the bad guys. So to drop that bomb is an act of utter cruelty.

MJ: These are the sort of hard facts coming out of your data after three years?

JS: Yes, exactly. And this is what the anti-war movement should be focusing on, and not these sterile debates about whose number is the best number. As if somehow 37,000 isn’t enough to make this an enormous war crime. When will it be enough for people to think this is a crime? It would be a crime if it was 5,000, if it was 500, if it was 5, and it wasn’t a legal act. This is something we shouldn’t be spending time on. We should be spending time on going for the jugular of the U.S. administration. We have the data we need. We don’t need any more.