Despite the capture of Saddam Hussein, civilian deaths in Iraq may prove to be the true Achilles heel of the US and Britain's intervention. The bodies pile up in morgues around the country, and reliable press and media reports put the total civilian death toll since March 19 as approaching 10,000.
More than 2,000 occupation-related deaths have occurred in Baghdad since President Bush announced the "end of major combat" on May 1. This bloodshed is inflaming anti-coalition passions in Iraq and beyond it, encouraging paramilitary organizations and provoking acts of revenge from ordinary Iraqis driven beyond moderation by the deaths of friends and family under the Coalition Provisional Authority's military rule.
Many commentators fear Saddam's capture will lead to an increase in violence and disorder. Those who refrained from joining the insurgent attacks on the US, for fear this would be aiding Saddam, may now feel no such restraint. Nearly 30 Iraqi civilians were killed in suicide attacks in the 24 hours after Saddam's capture was announced, including the largest number of deaths in a single attack on a police station.
The official response to civilian deaths has long been one of artless evasion and obfuscation. In September 2003, Adam Ingram, the UK defense minister, offered the following non sequitur as government policy: "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."
Like the UK, the Pentagon maintains that it does all it can to minimize civilian casualties, a claim incompatible with, among other things, its use of cluster bombs.
Last week, it was reported that the CPA has ordered the Iraqi health ministry to stop collecting statistics on civilian deaths. Dr Khudair Abbas, the Iraqi health minister, claimed such a study would not be feasible "because hospitals cannot distinguish between deaths that resulted from the coalition's efforts in the war, common crime among Iraqis, or deaths resulting from Saddam's brutal regime."
None of the statements from Washington, London, or Baghdad, make sense.
First, niceties are being applied that were not applied in the war itself. Military commanders did not refrain from dropping bombs or firing missiles in situations where it was impossible for them to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants. On the contrary, they declared it was a regrettable necessity that civilians should die.
Secondly, if a task is important, it should be done regardless of the possibility of "mistakes". Error margins can be estimated and reported along with the results of a survey, as is common practice. In commenting on recent adjustments (downwards) to the official casualty total for 9/11, Jonathan Greenspun, commissioner of the New York mayor's community assistance fund, told the New York Times that investigators were "so intent on determining the true and sacred number of the dead that they properly took their time, even if it meant that a few fraudulent names, or the names of the living, were sprinkled among those of the many dead. Better that, they reasoned, than to exclude the name of one true victim." The same reasoning applies in Iraq.
Third, the humanitarian imperative must be to locate and name the dead, regardless of how they died. Coalition claims that some categories of deaths were "justified" and others "caused by Saddam" cannot be used as an excuse to obstruct data collection. Disputes about who shares responsibility will drag on for years, but they are irrelevant to the task at hand. All conflict-related deaths in Iraq since March 19 2003 have come about through a deliberate, unilateral decision by the US and UK to invade Iraq without the authority of the UN. By doing this, and by later accepting the role of "Occupying Authority" under the provisions of the Geneva conventions and the Hague regulations, Britain and the US have assumed the responsibility for these deaths and how they are now handled, no matter who on the ground pulled the trigger.
Fourth, the coalition response ignores the existence of a range of surveys of civilian deaths that have already been conducted by independent agencies, including Human Rights Watch and the Mines Advisory Group. These projects show that high-quality research is possible. What is lacking in the White House and Number 10 is not the means but the will.
Since the start of hostilities, Iraq Body Count has been tracking civilian deaths through worldwide media reports. We will continue this work until some official agency fulfils its responsibilities to the memory of those who have died since March 19 2003. The innocent victims of the Iraq conflict must be recorded and honored - and their relatives compensated - for it is they who have paid most dearly for the decisions of our politicians.
· John Sloboda is co-founder of Iraq Body Count and incoming executive director of the Oxford Research Group
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003