How Many Iraqis Died? We May Never Know
Published on Saturday, May 3, 2003 by the San Francisco Chronicle
How Many Iraqis Died? We May Never Know
Some observers are pressuring Pentagon to put forth an informed estimate
by Edward Epstein
 

WASHINGTON -- The world will never know how many Iraqis died in the war to oust Saddam Hussein, in part because the United States adamantly refuses to estimate the number of people it kills in combat and because gathering accurate numbers is all but impossible after the Iraqi government's chaotic collapse.

What Bush administration officials do say is that the U.S. operation in Iraq included unprecedented efforts to minimize civilian casualties. That humanitarian stance has increased pressure on the Pentagon to abandon its long- held refusal to publicly offer numbers of civilians or enemy military personnel killed, as a way of showing if the use of precision-guided bombs and missiles and rules designed to avoid civilian targets have reduced so-called collateral damage.

"We don't do body counts," Gen. Tommy Franks, who directed the Iraq invasion, has said.

In his speech aboard the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, President Bush saluted a U.S. military operation that he said went out of its way to protect Iraqi civilians. "With new tactics and precision weapons, we can achieve military objectives without directing violence against civilians. No device of man can remove the tragedy from war, yet it is a great advance when the guilty have far more to fear from war than the innocent," he said.

The historical reluctance to estimate civilian or even military losses stems from a widespread belief that it would be all but impossible to separate casualties caused by American action from those caused by the enemy. As for military losses, the military's bitter experience with charges of inflated body counts during the Vietnam War has soured the Pentagon on even offering estimates of enemy killed, missing or wounded.

Among those who think the Pentagon should make an informed estimate of Iraqi casualties is Beth Osborne Daponte, a demographer at Carnegie Mellon University who studied casualties from the 1991 Gulf War.

"The Pentagon should be interested in the impact of its intervention on the population," she said.

The numbers of Iraqis killed is a politically charged figure. Before the war, an estimate that originated with U.N. officials said that 500,000 Iraqis could be killed in the war, and was widely quoted by the war's opponents.

Before it collapsed, the Iraqi government claimed on April 3 that 2,252 civilians had been killed and 5,103 injured. Baghdad fell April 9.

Since the Pentagon won't make estimates, others have stepped into the void.

A London-based Web site, www.iraqbodycount.net, has been keeping a running estimate of Iraqi civilian deaths, based on media accounts from the battlefield. Its figures -- a minimum of 2,197 deaths to a maximum of 2,670.

The site's researchers required a minimum of two independent media reports about each incident included in the casualty estimates, and its sources ranged from Al Jazeera, the Arab satellite news channel based in Qatar, to the New York Times.

The site's researchers say they feel frustrated that casualties on the losing end of a war often end up faceless and forgotten. "However many civilians are killed in the onslaught on Iraq, their death toll should not go unnoticed by those who are paying, in taxes, for their slaughter," the site says.

The site is based on the work of Marc Herold, a University of New Hampshire economist who conducted a similar running count of Afghan war casualties. He said the Iraqi count is probably too low, since researchers have only included incidents that at least two news organizations reported on.

"Requiring two independent sources is laudable, but in many instances you have a single person at the scene who writes it up in great detail," said Herold.

He estimated that the London counters are probably 10 to 20 percent low in their estimate of civilian deaths.

Retired Army Gen. Robert Scales, a commander in the 1991 Gulf War who later wrote the Army's official history of the conflict, said he doesn't know whether the Web site's figures are right. But he said the just-concluded war was remarkable for the U.S. military's successful focus on avoiding civilian losses.

"A hugely disproportionate number of those who died were intended to die. That's very unusual," he said.

In historical terms, Scales said, civilian losses in Iraq are small. Allied strategic bombing of Germany in World War II killed an estimated 2 million people in a nation with a prewar population of about 80 million.

In Iraq, with about 23 million people, the same proportion of casualties would mean about 575,000 dead civilians.

In her study of the 1991 war, Daponte estimated that 13,000 civilians were killed directly by the U.S.-led campaign, which included a month of bombing before the brief ground war began.

But Herold said the precision and power of today's U.S. munitions don't translate into lower civilian casualties, especially when a war involves urban targets, as in Iraq. He said the "intensity" of civilian casualties -- the number of civilians who die for each 10,000 pounds of bombs dropped -- is actually rising, especially as more precision weapons are used.

"Even if these bombs hit their targets, you'll kill civilians nearby," he said.

But Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said in a postwar analysis that the "effects-based" bombing in Iraq, in which air strikes were aimed at producing specific effects rather than scattershot damage, limited civilian losses.

"Even Iraqi claims indicate that the U.S. and U.K. inflicted negligible civilian casualties and collateral damage in historical terms," he wrote.

Herold and Scales agreed on one thing, however. They don't think the Pentagon should estimate the casualties it caused. "Any numbers they produce would be contested," said Herold. "They learned their lesson in Vietnam."

The allies do track their own casualties. So far, 132 American military personnel and 32 British have been killed in Iraq.

©2003 San Francisco Chronicle

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