Dead Reckoning: Counting Iraq's Civilian Dead

Meet the men behind the Iraqi casualty numbers.

When Hamit Dardagan leaves his flat in central London, he often feels that the people he sees around him aren’t living in the real world. “It is very strange that we are involved in a war, and things go on as if everything were normal,” he said recently. For Dardagan, a normal day is spent in a tiny home office in front of a computer screen, counting dead Iraqi civilians.

“It’s a bit like the movie Groundhog Day,” he said, his voice weary. “It just keeps repeating over and over and over. There might be new governments, new parliaments, new democracy in Iraq, but the violence just continues.” Three years ago, Dardagan, now 45, quit his job teaching computing and dedicated his nights and weekends to sifting through reports from more than 150 news sources, from Fox News to Al Jazeera, trying to determine how many innocent Iraqis were dying in the American invasion of Iraq and its aftermath. By his most current count, more than 37,000 Iraqi civilians have died since March 2003.

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This tally is updated daily on his website, Iraqbodycount.net, which Dardagan cofounded and runs with a team of 16 volunteers. The site, also known as IBC, has been the only consistent record of the war’s human toll, making it the go-to source for reporters, activists, and even the Bush administration.

Dardagan’s task isn’t merely a public service or an exercise in number crunching. “This project is arising from the antiwar movement,” he said. “It’s not something that military planners thought would be a good idea. They say because they don’t target civilians, they don’t need to record civilian deaths.”

If Dardagan’s findings are correct, then the Bush administration has good reason for being publicity shy. After six months of analysis, he concluded that 20 percent of Iraqi civilian casualties were women and children and that U.S. and coalition forces were responsible for more than a third of civilian casualties. And the third year of the American occupation was the deadliest one yet, with almost 13,000 deaths.

The Pentagon does keep a tally of Iraqi civilian casualties based on combat reports, but these figures are incomplete and are not immediately accessible. “We say the only reliable source is the Iraqi Ministry of Health,” Major Todd Vician, a Pentagon spokesman, told Mother Jones. But the ministry stopped readily providing journalists with numbers in the summer of 2004 as civilian casualties started to rise, and it was recently accused of suppressing the numbers of victims executed by Shiite militias. There have been more than a dozen independent surveys of civilian casualties, including a 2004 report in The Lancet that concluded 100,000 Iraqi civilians had been killed, but IBC remains the most-cited source for casualty numbers.

When asked for a figure last December, President Bush shrugged “30,000, more or less”—a number very close to the one on IBC at the time. Afterward, a CNN White House correspondent reported that Bush officials named Iraqbodycount.net as the source of the president’s estimate. “I think he surprised everyone by giving this figure,” said John Sloboda, IBC’s cofounder. (The president, however, misused the number, thinking it included Iraqi military and police casualties.)

Knowing that the White House was paying attention gave Dardagan and Sloboda slight satisfaction. “The fact that the president of the United States cites that figure, it puts a stake in the ground,” said Sloboda. “It’s not that there aren’t more dead. There are many more dead. But, you know, no one can say there are less than that. This number is a kind of irrefutable bedrock.”

Yet IBC may become a casualty of the public’s waning interest in—or stomach for—the unrelenting violence in Iraq. After registering 100,000 hits a day in April 2003, the site now gets around 5,000, and the donations that keep it alive have slowed to a trickle. In January, it posted an “urgent appeal” on its front page: “We are running out of funds.”

For now, Dardagan is committed to his vigilant daily count. “I can’t say I’m as energetic,” he said quietly. “But the energy is changing now, is different than it was before.” He’s redesigning the site in hopes of turning it into a memorial to the 36 civilians who die each day in Iraq. He wants to name and remember them, the way those killed in the World Trade Center and London Underground are remembered—to elevate them beyond lifeless statistics. “I’m doing this simply because they’re human beings.”