May 22, 2003 edition - http://www.csmonitor.com/2003/0522/p01s02-woiq.html
Preliminary reports suggest casualties well above the Gulf War.
By Peter Ford ;The Christian Science Monitor
BAGHDAD - Evidence is mounting to suggest that between 5,000 and
10,000 Iraqi civilians may have died during the recent war, according
to researchers involved in independent surveys of the country.
None of the local and foreign researchers were willing to speak for the record, however, until their tallies are complete.
Such a range would make the Iraq war the deadliest campaign for noncombatants that US forces have fought since Vietnam.
Though it is still too early for anything like a definitive
estimate, the surveyors warn, preliminary reports from hospitals,
morgues, mosques, and homes point to a level of civilian casualties far
exceeding the Gulf War, when 3,500 civilians are thought to have died.
"Thousands are dead, thousands are missing, thousands are
captured," says Haidar Taie, head of the tracing department for the
Iraqi Red Crescent in Baghdad. "It is a big disaster."
By one measure of violence against noncombatants, as compared with
resistance faced by soldiers, the war in Iraq was particularly brutal.
In Operation Just Cause, the 1989 US invasion of Panama, 13 Panamanian
civilians died for every US military fatality. If 5,000 Iraqi civilians
died in the latest war, that proportion would be 33 to 1.
US and British military officials insisted throughout the war that
their forces did all they could to avoid civilian casualties. But it
has become clear since the fighting ended that bombs did go astray,
that targets were chosen in error, and that as US troops pushed rapidly
north toward the capital they killed thousands of civilians from the
air and from the ground.
There are no figures at all for Iraqi military casualties, which
Iraqi officials kept secret. One factor that led to many civilian
deaths, and which complicates the task of counting them accurately, is
that irregular fedayeen militia hid in civilian homes as they fought
advancing coalition troops, and dressed as civilians.
Nor are hospital records - kept in the heat of war under intense
pressure on doctors and staff - necessarily accurate, some observers
warn. That means they probably underestimate the real scale of civilian
deaths, although at the same time they may have recorded some combatant
casualties as civilian ones.
"We had some figures from hospital sources but we realized very
quickly that they were very partial," says Nada Doumani, an official
with the International Committee of the Red Cross in Baghdad. "It is
very difficult to keep track of everyone who was killed, and we were
afraid the numbers could be misinterpreted, so we refrained from giving
"During the war, some people brought bodies to the hospitals to get
death certificates; others just buried them where they were found in
the street, or in schools," adds Faik Amin Bakr, director of the
Baghdad morgue. "I don't think anyone in Iraq could give you the figure
of civilian deaths at the moment."
The chaos of the war and the confusion
that persists in Iraq, where central government is still not
functioning, have led one US human rights group with experience in
counting civilian casualties in Afghanistan to launch a nationwide
house-to-house survey of areas where fighting was fierce.
The Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC) has mobilized
150 surveyors to carry out detailed interviews with victims of the war;
recording deaths, injuries, and damage to property with a view to
securing assistance from US government funds.
A full accounting could take months, says CIVIC coordinator Marla
Ruzicka, and the group is still compiling its data. But its volunteers
have already recorded more than 1,000 civilian deaths in the southern
town of Nasariyah, and almost as many in the capital.
"In Baghdad, we have discovered 1,000 graves, and that is not the
final figure," says Ali Ismail, a Red Crescent official. "Every day we
discover more" where local residents say civilians were buried.
Researchers say they have found particularly high levels of
civilian casualties along the Euphrates River, between Nasariyah and
Najaf, where US Marines fought their way toward Baghdad.
"The biggest contrast between Afghan- istan (where an estimated
1,800 civilians died during the US-led campaign there in 2001) and Iraq
is that Afghanistan was predominantly an air war and this was a
ground/air battle," says Reuben Brigety, a researcher for Human Rights
"Air wars are not flawless, but if you have precision weapons you
can do a lot to make them more accurate," he adds. "The same is not yet
true of ground combat. It is clear the ground battle took a toll;
ground war is nasty."
A focus on cluster bombs
Dr. Brigety and his colleagues in
Baghdad say they are especially concerned by the wide use of cluster
bombs during the war in Iraq.
They say they have found evidence of "massive use of cluster bombs
in densely populated areas," according to Human Rights Watch researcher
Marc Galasco, contradicting coalition claims that such munitions were
used only in deserted areas.
Dispersing thousands of bomblets that shoot out shards of shrapnel
over an area the size of a football field, such weapons become
indiscriminate and thus illegal under the laws of war, if used in
civilian neighborhoods, Human Rights Watch has argued during past
"At one level it is unhelpful to talk about large or small numbers"
of civilian casualties, says Brigety. "It is more important to ask if
the deaths were preventable."
The combination of cluster-bomb use, inaccurate artillery fire at
Iraqi troops concentrated near civilian areas, and street fighting in
towns throughout Iraq means that the number of civilian deaths might be
as high as 10,000, say two researchers from two different teams who
asked not to be identified until the evidence was clearer.
Also waiting for clearer evidence are US government agencies mandated by Congress to assist civilian victims of the war in Iraq.
At the instigation of Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont, the Iraq
war supplemental bill, signed by President Bush April 16, directs that
an unspecified amount of the $2.4 billion appropriated for relief and
reconstruction in Iraq should pay for "assistance for families of
innocent Iraqi civilians who suffer losses as a result of military
"Perhaps it is impossible to eliminate these kinds of mistakes, but
you can do something for the victims after the fact," says Tim Rieser,
an aide to Senator Leahy.
Mourning his children
But that is little comfort to Mahmoud
Ali Hamadi. Hugging his 18-month-old son, Haidar, to his breast for
comfort, he cannot hold back his sobs as he recounts how a US missile
that landed by his front gate killed his wife and three elder children
on the night of April 5.
"My children were the brightest in the whole school," he recalls,
looking fondly at an old family photograph through his tears. "Eleven
years I spent raising them, and in one instant I lost them."
Mr. Hamadi's family died in Rashidiya, a village of palm groves and
vegetable plots on the banks of the Tigris, half an hour north of
Nearly 100 villagers were killed by US bombing and strafing on
April 5, including 43 in one house, for reasons that they do not
understand. "There was no military base here," says Hamadi. "We are not
military personnel. This is just a peasant village."
The need to provide assistance
Civilian victims of US
military action in Afghanistan - identified by a team led by Ruzicka -
are also supposed to receive assistance. So far, however, USAID has not
disbursed any of that money, citing security risks and other problems
in the parts of Afghanistan where the money is meant to be spent.
"We have a responsibility to provide assistance, especially when we were the cause," says Mr. Rieser.
"It is in our interest to make the point that this was not a war
against the Iraqi people," he says. Senator Leahy's hope, he adds, is
that the aid will "build goodwill for the US, which seems to be
shrinking by the day in Iraq."
That would appear to be a vain hope in the case of Hamadi, as he
mourns the loss of his family. "The Americans are assassins," he says
wearily, his face worn by grief. "I haven't complained to the
Americans. What would I get if I complained to them? I have complained
only to God."
Iraqi civilian deaths
• Nongovernmental and media
organizations have produced widely varying figures on the number of
Iraqi civilians killed during the recent conflict. The range is a
result of incomplete, unconfirmable, and unavailable information.
• Iraqbodycount.net, a
website that draws on media accounts and eyewitness reports, estimates
that between 4,065 and 5,223 Iraqi civilians have been killed as a
result of coalition military action, both during and after the war.
• A May 15 Associated Press report gives an estimate of 2,100 to 2,600 civilian deaths, without citing sources.
• The US Department of Defense has refused to give any sort of estimate on deaths.
• Two news organizations have produced estimates of civilian
casualties in just the Baghdad area by canvassing hospitals and
tallying their records. The Los Angeles Times reported on May 18 that
probably between 1,700 and 2,700 civilians were killed in and around
Baghdad. The Knight Ridder agency published an estimate of between
1,100 and 2,355 on May 4.