Uncounted Dead

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

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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.

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.

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.

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

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

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.

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

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.


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