News and Information
Counting the civilian cost in Iraq
|September 22, 2004
| By Matthew Davis
BBC News Online
More than 1,000 US soldiers have been killed since the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Other coalition allies are mourning dozens of their own fighting men and women.
There is no official record of how many Iraqi civilians have died
Thousands of Iraqi civilians have also died as a result of conflict and its bloody aftermath - but officially, no one has any idea how many.
Human rights groups say the occupying powers have failed in a duty to catalogue the deaths, giving the impression that ordinary Iraqis' lives are worth less than those of soldiers.
Unofficial estimates of the civilian toll vary wildly, from at least 10,000 to more than 37,000.
But the view famously expressed by US General Tommy Franks that "we don't do body counts" still resonates in government circles.
Imagine the US not investigating exactly who died on September 11, it is unthinkable
Iraq Body Count
America and Britain say the chaos of war-torn Iraq makes it impossible to get accurate information.
And while Iraq's health and interior ministries now record non-military deaths, resources for this are tiny in a country rebuilding after war.
Iraq Body Count
The UK-based Iraq Body Count - run on a shoestring by about 20 academics and peace activists - is one of the most widely-quoted sources of information on the civilian toll.
It says 13-15,000 ordinary Iraqis have died since the invasion in March 2003, figures compiled from media reports of thousands of incidents.
Civilian toll estimates at 09/04
Iraq Body Count: 13-15,000
Brookings Inst: 10-27,000
UK foreign secretary: >10,000
People's Kifah >37,000
Where sources report differing figures, a minimum and a maximum are given.
Professor John Sloboda, a co-founder of Iraq Body Count, told BBC News Online: "Everyone can agree that there are good reasons why our count can never be complete, but there is not as much confusion as you think.
"Since the end of hostilities was declared, we are confident in the figures."
The IBC wants to see an independent commission set up in Iraq to give the best estimate of civilian deaths and full details of how each person died.
Prof Sloboda said: "No country could hold its head up high without looking back to investigate the deaths of thousands of its people.
"Imagine the United States not investigating exactly who died on September 11, it is unthinkable."
It should be recognised that there is no reliable way of estimating the number of civilian casualties caused during major combat operations
British defence ministry
Other sources for casualty figures include the Washington-based Brookings Institution, which combines IBC's figures with projections for deaths caused by violent crime in Iraq.
It says that from May 2003 to the end of August 2004, between 10,000 and 27,000 Iraqis were killed through acts of war or other violence.
In August, an Iraqi group calling itself the People's Kifah said it had documented more than 37,000 civilian deaths from March to October 2003.
But there has been no independent scrutiny of these figures, and the group could not be contacted.
The Pentagon, like the UK MoD, maintains US forces do all they can to minimise civilian casualties in one of the "most precisely targeted campaigns" in history, but it has said it does not produce figures on those killed.
In the chaos of Iraq, people die, they are quickly buried and nothing more may be heard of them. Fighters dress in street clothes... indistinguishable from civilians
Human Rights Watch
The US State Department told BBC News Online it had no policy input on the issue, which was "entirely a matter for the Defense Department".
An MoD spokesman said: "It should be recognised that there is no reliable way of estimating the number of civilian casualties caused during major combat operations.
"We would caution against taking the numbers quoted in media reports and else where at face value. No source or combination of sources can produce a reliable figure."
But in May, UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told BBC radio that estimates by non-governmental organisations put the civilian death toll at about 10,000 in the year after the invasion. He said it was "odd that coalition forces have not kept consistent records".
The Foreign Office now says 10,000 was never an official figure, and doubts one will ever be obtained.
'Weigh cost of war'
Critics point to the fact that neither the British nor US forces have any difficulty in announcing they have killed a fairly exact number of "enemy" or "insurgents".
Outcry over civilian deaths in other conflicts has shaped military policy
And some legal experts say it is the duty of occupying powers to keep track of civilian losses under the Geneva Conventions.
But in many incidents it is hard to get a true picture of what caused the attack, let alone how many people were killed.
Ken Roth, head of Human Rights Watch, told BBC News Online he doesn't think it will ever be possible to come up with anything better than a good guess at the final civilian cost.
"It's not like Yugoslavia where the Serbs kept detailed records of the civilian toll. In Iraq, the institutions that could have compiled them have broken down.
"In the chaos of Iraq, people die, they are quickly buried and nothing more may be heard of them. Fighters dress in street clothes, so in hospitals they are indistinguishable from civilians."
Producing a final toll can be useful in that we can weigh the cost of war against the number of innocent lives, Mr Roth said.
"But what is more important is what lessons can be learned by investigating how and why people were killed."
Human Rights Watch says the invasion of Iraq saw a dramatic fall in the number of US Air Force strikes using cluster bombs in populated areas - a consequence of lessons learned in Afghanistan.
Nobody can stop themselves being drawn into the blind violence that continues to sweep the country
But it says the US Army - which had not fought a major war for 10 years - continued to use the controversial bombs in abundance.
A recent HRW report also criticised what it said was the "imprecise targeting" of decapitation strikes against figures in Saddam Hussein's regime.
Out of 50 strikes, none were hit, says HRW, but 40 civilians were killed because planners relied on rough Global Positioning System locations from mobile phones.
"Any attacking force has a duty to do this kind of analysis," said Mr Roth. "What is amazing is that the US does nothing of the sort."
In the meantime, Iraq's precarious humanitarian situation sees dozens of people killed every day.
"Nobody can stop themselves being drawn into the blind violence that continues to sweep the country," said Nada Doumani, of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
"Civilians are those who pay the greatest price."
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