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the Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Light Shed on Questions About War

WASHINGTON -- There is new information on two abiding mysteries about the Iraq war: How many Iraqis have been killed? And why did President Bush order a U.S. attack on Iraq in the first place?

Last week, U.S. and Iraqi researchers -- writing in the respected British medical journal, The Lancet -- estimated that the Iraqi death toll associated with the invasion and occupation of Iraq was about 100,000 "and may be much higher."

Most of them were women and children -- victims of bombs or bullets from helicopter gunships.

The estimates reported in Lancet were made by comparing the Iraqi death rate in the 15 months before the invasion with the death rate during the 18 months after the attack.

The scientists who wrote the report acknowledge that their data is of "limited precision" because it was based on household interviews in some 33 neighborhoods across the country. More household surveys would have improved the accuracy of their conclusions, the authors said, but it would have required "enormous risk" to the courageous teams of interviewers.

Early on, Gen. Tommy Franks, former chief of the U.S. Central Command, said, "We don't do body counts."

Actually, the U.S. military stopped publicizing enemy body counts during the first Gulf War in 1991. The Pentagon decided in the aftermath of the Vietnam War that body counts were hurtful to the military's public relations and should be kept under wraps.

Today, Pentagon officials can tell you the exact number of American casualties: 1,122 dead and 8,287 wounded, so far. But they say they don't "track" Iraqi deaths, civilian or military.

Defense Department spokesman James Turner said there is no way to validate the estimates of civilian casualties by the Defense Department or any other organization.

"This conflict has been prosecuted in the most precise fashion of any conflict in the history of modern warfare," he added. "The loss of any innocent lives is a tragedy, something Iraqi security forces and the multi-national force painstakingly work to avoid."

Bush apparently invested in the fantasy that invading Iraq would be a cakewalk.

Evangelist Pat Robertson, founder of the U.S. Christian Coalition, disclosed that when he warned the president about the need to prepare Americans for the prospect of casualties in Iraq, Bush responded: "We're not going to have any casualties."

I wonder what planet the president has been living on to imagine he could pull off a military blitz without casualties.

White House aides jumped in with strong denials that Bush had made such a statement. Presidential adviser Karen Hughes said Robertson must have "either misunderstood, misheard or been confused about the conversation."


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The president, however, never denied it publicly, apparently not wanting to tangle with Robertson, who has acknowledged "deep misgivings about the war."

Later, Robertson issued a two-paragraph statement confirming his support for Bush, saying, "He's a great leader and I am 100 percent in favor of his re-election." He did not retract his statement about Bush's no-casualties comment.

There are also new insights into Bush's reasons for invading Iraq.

Mickey Herskowitz, a prolific book author and the Bush family's authorized biographer, says Bush was "thinking about invading Iraq in 1999. It was on his mind."

How does Herskowitz know that? It turns out that he had been hired by Bush -- then governor of Texas -- to ghostwrite his autobiography, ultimately titled "A Charge to Keep: My Journey to the White House."

Herskowitz was given unimpeded access to Bush, and the two men met approximately 20 times so Bush could share his thoughts, according to independent journalist Russ Baker, who interviewed Herskowitz.

During one of their conversations, Herskowitz said, Bush told him that "one of the keys to being seen as a great leader is to be seen as a commander in chief."

He said Bush's circle of advisers had a fixation on the political capital that former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher collected from the Falklands war in 1982.

"They were just absolutely blown away, just enthralled by the scenes of the troops coming back, of the boats, people throwing flowers at (Thatcher) and her getting those standing ovations in Parliament in making these magnificent speeches."

Herskowitz, who also was the authorized biographer of the president's grandfather, Prescott Bush, said George W. Bush's beliefs about Iraq were based in part on the concept: "Start a small war, pick a country where there is justification you can jump on, go ahead and invade." If successful, you'll be hero at home.

Bush aides ended up canceling the Herskowitz book project because the draft didn't glow enough about their boss. Hughes herself ended up rewriting it.

The idea that we would go to war to boost a president's political fortunes is obscene.

Now that the election is over and the commander in chief won, he can return to the business of war. The administration is planning a massive assault on the city of Fallujah, Iraq. But we will never know the death toll for Iraqi civilians who live there.

Helen Thomas

Helen Thomas

Helen Thomas was an American author and former news service reporter, member of the White House Press Corps and columnist. She worked for the United Press International (UPI) for 57 years, first as a correspondent, and later as White House bureau chief. She was an opinion columnist for Hearst Newspapers from 2000 to 2010, writing on national affairs and the White House. Among other books, she was the author of Front Row at The White House: My Life and Times. Helen passed away on July 20, 2013.

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