Western official sources and much of the Western media have shown an obsessive level of interest in deaths of Westerners during the Iraq conflict -- at least by comparison with their interest in the Iraqi dead. We know the name, age, date, and place of death of every European and American. There is constant and immediate updating of and rumination on the implications of the Western death toll by political commentators, government spokespersons, and front-line media. Yet the Western death toll (under 400), is completely dwarfed by the Iraqi death toll (around 7,000 to 9,000 civilian deaths reported to date, and an unknown number of military deaths, claimed by different commentators as likely to be between 10,000 and 45,000). Table 1 shows the most up-to-date estimates of total deaths available, with key sources.
So little attention and interest is shown by Western officialdom towards Iraqi deaths, and so consistent is the refusal by the US and UK administrations to engage in any discussion or evaluation of the toll on Iraqi lives, that their stance is beginning to take on an increasingly surreal quality. Independent attempts to draw attention to the Iraqi death toll and its consequences are typically brushed aside as politically-motivated or "anti-American," and the atrocities of Saddam held up as justification enough for the "collateral damage" of the war which ousted him from power. However, when Government obfuscates on this issue to its own members of parliament, then we know that something is very wrong indeed.
Llew Smith, a UK Labour MP, recently wrote to the UK Defence Minister, Adam Ingram, and got the following reply: "Whilst the Ministry of Defence has accurate data relating to the number of UK service personnel that have been killed or injured during Operation Telic (the invasion of Iraq), we have no way of establishing with any certainty the number of Iraqi casualties."
In a further question, Smith asked the Defence Secretary if he would examine reports of Iraqi deaths from eyewitness correspondents embedded with the military in the invasion of Iraq; request the Coalition provisional authority to make a survey of deaths reported in hospitals in Iraq, from 19 March to 1 May, arising from military conflict; and make the estimating of Iraqi military deaths part of the aim of interrogation of Iraqi military commanders in custody. Mr Ingram's reply stated: "Any loss of life, particularly civilian, is deeply regrettable, but in a military operation the size of Operation Telic it is also unavoidable. Through very strict rules of engagement, the use of precision munitions and the tactical methods employed to liberate Iraq's major cities, we are satisfied that the coalition did everything possible to avoid unnecessary casualties. We do not, therefore, propose to undertake a formal review of Iraqi casualties sustained from 19 March to 1 May."
Smith goes on to conclude: "Surely this is both an inhumane and unacceptable position. As at least part of our aid to postwar Iraq must be targeted at assistance to families left without breadwinners who have been killed or seriously injured by the invasion, then our planners are going to have to calculate the numbers of families left destitute by their loss." (Independent, 18 September 2003, page 19, www.independent.co.uk ).
Any sober reflection on the Iraq crisis, from any side of the political spectrum, must surely conclude that the nature and extent of the damage inflicted on the Iraqi people as a result of the US/UK coalition action is one of the most important factors determining what is happening in Iraq now and what is likely to happen in the future.
Assessment of the human cost is vital in determining the nature and timing of actions needed to bring stability to Iraq and the entire Middle East. The refusal of the USA and the UK administrations to publicly face up to the facts, and their consequences, is a self-defeating ostrich-like posture that will simply inflame the enormous problems now festering in Iraq and neighboring countries. Every human life is equally valuable, and there is absolutely no human justification for placing the honoring and remembering of US or UK casualties above that of Iraqi casualties. The failings of the West in this respect, are, and will be seen as, racist in general, and anti-Arab in particular.
Since January 2003, Iraq Body Count has been compiling a comprehensive public data base of media-reported civilian deaths in Iraq which flow from the US/UK military actions and subsequent occupation. The data base is on a publicly available web-site which is updated as soon as the research team have verified the figures from two or more approved media sources. The total is automatically updated and conveyed, via downloadable web-counters, to over 5,000 web-sites worldwide. We publish both a minimum and a maximum for each incident, and also for the total, to accommodate variations in estimates and potential uncertainties in the reports.
Although the cumulative total is an important statistic, and the one which is most often quoted in media reporting on our work, the data collected and archived allows more specific and focused questions to be answered, at least in part. Previously published analyses (available at www.iraqbody count.net/editorial_aug0703.htm) have focused on the geographical distribution of deaths over the country; the number of deaths from cluster munitions; and deaths where names and other personal details of victims are available. We have also published the first estimate of civilian injuries drawn from media reports which mention such injuries in the context of reporting civilian deaths. We hope shortly to upgrade the public data-base so that it can be searched and sorted on-line by web-users, who may thus be better enabled to conduct their own analyses on our data using a range of different sort criteria.
The glaring gap in the "counting the dead" project is any reliable total for Iraqi military deaths. The published estimates are little more than informed guesses, and are not based on reliable data. By contrast, the information about civilian deaths, while scattered and multiple-sourced, is precise and relies on very little estimation or extrapolation. Our insistence that any incident entering our data base is tied to a specific location and time-frame ensures that we deal only in actual, rather than projected, deaths.
Our most recent analysis is focused on the single most important source of information about civilian deaths since the end of the "war-phase." This is the Baghdad city morgue. All victims of suspicious or violent death are supposed to be referred here by the hospitals so that an autopsy can be carried out through forensic examination. The figures are not entirely representative because, in some cases, families simply bury their dead without going to the authorities. Many journalists have interviewed morgue staff, and this report is typical:
"We used to receive about 300-350 cases per month -- an average of 10 a day," said Faik Amin Baker, director of the Medical Legal Institute in Medical City, which oversees the running of the morgue. "The figures now are more than triple that. We sometimes get 40 to 45 cases in one day." (Source: www.baghdadbulletin.com/pageArticle.php?article_id=88&cat_id=1 (date 8 August 2003)
Based on analysis of over 20 different press reports filed between May 2003 and the present, we are now able to show conclusively that the rate of violent deaths has steadily risen since April, and is far above comparable figures for the same period of the previous year. Drawing from key media reports which quote precise totals (rather than per-day or per-week estimates), Table 2 shows the monthly totals of deaths arriving at the Baghdad Morgue.
From April 14th to 31st August, 2,846 violent deaths were recorded by the Baghdad city morgue. When corrected for pre-war death rates in the city a total of at least 1,519 excess violent deaths in Baghdad emerges from reports based on the morgue's records.
IBC's latest study is the first comprehensive count to adjust for the comparable "background level" of deaths in Baghdad in recent pre-war times. It is therefore an estimate of additional deaths in the city directly attributable to the breakdown of law and order following the US takeover and occupation of Baghdad.
The study confirms the widespread anecdotal evidence that violence on the streets of Baghdad has skyrocketed, with the average daily death rate almost tripling since mid April from around 10 per day to over 28 per day during August.
Another worrying development is that during the pre-war period deaths from gunshot wounds accounted for approximately 10 per cent of bodies brought to the morgue, but now account for over 60 per cent of those killed. The small number of reports available for other cities indicate that these trends are being mirrored elsewhere in the country.
Although the majority of deaths are the result of Iraqi on Iraqi violence, some were directly caused by US military fire. There is evidence that these deaths, often from indiscriminate use of firepower, increasingly fail to be reported or remain unacknowledged by occupation forces.
The Geneva Conventions and Hague Regulations, to which the United States and Britain are signatories, place the responsibility for ensuring public order and protecting the civilian population from violence on the occupying powers. UN Resolution 1483, which recognized the US/UK as the de facto occupying authority in Iraq, clearly bound them to these duties. But the US/UK are manifestly failing to fulfill them, compounding the death and destruction already unleashed by their invasion of Iraq. At the same time the United States, in particular, resists any multilateral initiatives which would lead to an early end to its dominance over the country.
Meanwhile the latest reports from the nation's capital show that, as throughout the summer, the city's daily death toll continues to rise. But reporting this rise may become more difficult, as coalition forces suppress the free movement of journalists.
Pepe Escobar, a journalist for the Asia Times, reports that "The [Coalition Provisonal Authority] has in fact censored journalists' visits to Iraqi hospitals. Special permission is now required - and the wait can be eternal." (Sept 19, 2003: www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/EI19Ak02.html)
British journalist Robert Fisk has reported this too - but notes that while "this means we're not in theory supposed to find out the [casualty] figures, ...in fact we can get into the hospitals, because we know many of the doctors or there are other ways in, and usually the security guards are very sympathetic towards us. They're Iraqi. They want us to tell the story of this great tragedy for the Iraqis." (Source: Democracy Now interview, Sep 18, 2003: www.indybay.org/news/2003/09/1646484.php)
And unlike our great leaders, those Iraqi hospital workers don't believe the public needs to be guarded from the truth.
The Iraq Body Count Project maintains an up-to-date chronology of the war's casualties at www.iraqbodycount.net.
Other coalition (inc UK)
Maximum total deaths
Table 1: Conflict-related deaths in Iraq between March 20th and September 1st 2003 (maximum documented or estimated)
Deaths from Gunshot wounds
Table 2: Total deaths recorded at the Baghdad Morgue - April through July 2003
Independent 16 May 2003;
Christian Science Monitor 16 May 2003;
Knight Ridder Newspapers 21 May 2003;
Institute for War and Peace reporting 6 June 2003;
Boston Globe 3 September 2003;
New York Times 16 September 2003;
Los Angeles Times 16 September 2003.