UNITED NATIONS - When General Tommy Franks, who coordinated the recent U.S.-led military attack on Iraq, was asked about civilian casualties, he shot back: ''We don't do body counts.''
Less than two months after the invasion of Iraq, there are no definitive figures of the civilian casualties -- unarmed men, women and children who died in the 44-day military assault. But there are a growing number of attempts to determine that number and to hold Washington and its allies responsible.
Several human rights groups are calling for the creation of either a war crimes tribunal or an international commission of justice. Additionally, several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) say they will pressure Washington to pay compensation for the killings of innocent civilians -- a common practice in U.S. law courts.
The Commission on Human Security (CHS), which is overseeing the 'Iraq Body Count Project' estimates between 5,000 and 7,000 civilians died in the attack, or more.
Marla Ruzicka of the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC) says her door-to-door survey teams in Iraq have concluded that ''somewhere between 5,000 to 10,000 people died in this conflict''.
''Yes, a number is important,'' she says, ''but it's not as important as making sure that we recognize that each number is a life. Our goal, beyond getting assistance to the innocent families that are harmed, is to get a proper accounting of war.''
Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights says Washington should be hauled up before an international war crimes commission and held accountable for civilian deaths in Iraq.
''In any war, the number of civilians killed is critical,'' Ratner told IPS.. ''It is that number that can help determine whether or not the military complied with the Geneva conventions (governing the conduct of wars).''
”And in each military engagement, the number of civilians killed cannot be out of proportion with the value of the military target. Franks' statement is practically saying that the laws of war do not apply to the United States,'' he added.
Last week, a Belgian lawyer filed a lawsuit in Brussels charging Franks with war crimes. The action was submitted on behalf of 19 Iraqis, allegedly victims of cluster bombs and U.S. bombings of civilians, under a law that permits Belgian courts to try foreigners for war crimes.
This week, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) challenged a U.S. military accounting of the bombing last April of a hotel in Baghdad in which two journalists were killed.
After an investigation the CPJ concluded there is no evidence that U.S. forces were fired on from the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad, where nearly 100 journalists were holed up before the building was shelled by U.S. forces.
The family of a Spanish journalist killed in that attack has already filed a lawsuit against three U.S. soldiers for war crimes and murder. The suit, based on a provision of the Rome Statute (of the International Criminal Court or ICC), could be expanded to include other people, ”independent of their rank or nationality”, said Pilar Hermoso, the attorney for Jose Couso's family.
But the high court's chief prosecutor, Eduardo Fungairiño, said this week he opposes the complaint, meaning a delay of 15 days before it is decided if the case will proceed.
''It is very clear that war crimes were committed in Iraq,'' says James Jennings, president of Conscience International.
First, U.S.-led forces targeted and killed many civilians during massive bombing of facilities unrelated to military objectives, such as government ministries serving civilian needs, as well as hospitals, schools and homes.
Secondly, he told IPS, the military used disproportionate force with its so-called ''covering fire'' technique, which means indiscriminate shooting at shops, homes and mosques, killing many civilian non-combatants, including women and children.
Jennings said that at least one Marine battalion commander admitted as much to 'Time' magazine when he said -- after the killing by his unit of nearly 100 Iraqis without an injury to his men -- ''Let's quit pussyfooting, and call it what it is. It's murder, it's slaughter.''
''Now that the United States has accepted the status of an occupying power under international law, officials in Washington cannot claim exemption from prosecution of war crimes during the period of conflict,'' Jennings added..
The Lawyers Committee for Human Rights and Amnesty International have both called for the establishment of a commission of experts to examine past and recent international war crimes and genocide committed in Iraq.
But since the United States and Britain hold veto powers in the United Nations Security Council, most human rights groups doubt that the world body will create a war crimes tribunal for Iraq. That does not mean it is not essential, says one expert.
''Whether or not the question of accountability in Iraq is addressed successfully could make or break the prospects for peace and stability in that country,'' said Michael Posner, executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights.
Meanwhile, a coalition of over 150 peace and human rights groups has expressed disappointment that a recent Security Council resolution lifting sanctions on Iraq never addressed the issue of war crimes.
''We have just sent letters both to the Security Council and members of the General Assembly about the issue of war crimes and the killing of both civilians and journalists by the U.S. military,'' said Rob Wheeler of the Uniting for Peace Coalition.
''These issues, along with many others, were irresponsibly ignored when the Security Council approved the recent U.S. resolution on Iraq à These matters must be investigated as part of a wider discussion by the General Assembly on the invasion of Iraq,'' he added in an interview.
''The United States says it cares about the 3,000 people killed during the attack on Sep. 11 (2001), but it doesn't seem to care about the tens of thousands or even millions of civilians that have been killed by U.S. attacks on other countries over the years.''
Wheeler said that his coalition believes that the invading powers must be forced to pay reparations for the death and destruction they have caused in Iraq. ''Yes, compensation is due for all of the damages, and civilian loss of life, caused by this illegal and unprovoked war,'' he added.
Jennings pointed out that besides civilian killings, ''the use of tons of depleted uranium munitions, which cause genetic defects into the next generation, and of 1,500 cluster bombs that have killed and maimed numerous children, may also be classified as war crimes.''
''In short,'' he said, U.S. technological progress has far outstripped its moral development.''
"The charge of deception is inescapable," said Germany's largest newspaper, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
Copyright 2003 IPS