Swans Commentary » swans.com Special Issue on Iraq - February 2, 2004  







Civilian Deaths
The Achilles Heel Of The Coalition Occupation?

John Sloboda




10,000 Civilians Dead

(Swans - February 2, 2004)   Despite the capture of Saddam Hussein, civilian deaths in Iraq may prove to be the true Achilles heel of the United States' 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, 2003 as approaching 10,000. Seven thousand three hundred fifty of these were reported as occurring before President Bush announced the "end of major combat" on May 1, 2003.

More than 2,000 occupation-related deaths have occurred in Baghdad alone since May 1, 2003. This bloodshed is inflaming anti-coalition passions in Iraq and beyond it, encouraging paramilitary organisations 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.

These disasters are the outcome of what George W. Bush characterised in his London speech of November 20, 2003 as a "noble mission" to rid the world of terrorists. Of such terrorists he said "We see their contempt, their utter contempt, for innocent life." (1) In fact, since 9/11, it is the USA and the UK who have shown more contempt for innocent life than terrorists.

The Balance Sheet in the "War on Terror"

So far, in the "war on terror" initiated since 9/11, the USA and its allies have been responsible for over 13,000 civilian deaths, not only the 10,000-plus in Iraq, but also 3,000-plus civilian deaths in Afghanistan, another death toll that continues to rise long after the world's attention has moved on. (2) (3)

Elsewhere in the world over the same period, paramilitary forces hostile to the USA have killed 408 civilians in 18 attacks worldwide (see Table 1). Adding the official 9/11 death toll (2,976 as of October 29, 2003) brings the total to just under 3,500. (4) (5)

For each civilian killed by "terrorists" on and since 9/11, the USA and its allies have brought about almost four civilian deaths in return.

The figures above do not include recent civilian deaths in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Latest estimates suggest that the Israeli army has killed 2,750 Palestinian civilians in the last three years. Eight hundred ninety-two Israeli civilians have died in suicide attacks. This represents a ratio of just over 3:1 in Palestinian deaths as compared to Israeli deaths. (6) The Israeli leadership has repeatedly claimed that their actions against the Palestinians are part and parcel of the same "war on terror" being fought by the USA and the UK.


 Table 1
Paramilitary Attacks on Western Targets Resulting in Deaths
September 2001 to November 2003
Date Place Target Numbers killed Numbers injured
September 2001 3 US locations World Trade Center, Pentagon, Pennsylvania 2,976 -
March 2002 Islamabad, Pakistan Worshippers at church in diplomatic compound 5 45
April 2002 Djerba, Tunisia Synagogue 21 24
May 2002 Karachi, Pakistan French naval technicians 14 23
June 2002 Karachi, Pakistan US Consulate 11 45
October 2002 Philippines US special forces soldier 1 -
October 2002 Yemen Limburg oil tanker 1 -
October 2002 Amman, Jordan US diplomat 1 -
October 2002 Bali, Indonesia Sari Nightclub 202 300
November 2002 Kikambala, Kenya Paradise Hotel 11 50
May 2003 Casablanca, Morocco Multiple 39 60
May 2003 Riyadh, Saudi Arabia Western residential compounds 29 200
August 2003 Djakarta, Indonesia Marriott Hotel 13 149
November 2003 Istanbul, Turkey 2 synagogues 23 300
November 2003 Istanbul, Turkey HSBC Bank, British Consulate 28 400
Total     3,375  


The Official Response: Evasion and Double Standards

One might ask how it is possible to claim that the deaths of some 4,500 civilians at the hands of paramilitaries demonstrates "utter contempt for innocent life" when the deaths of 14,000 innocent civilians, as a result of the actions of troops loyal to Washington, are considered noble and necessary. Tony Blair provided the following answer on November 28, 2003, standing alongside George W. Bush in London:

This terrorism is the 21st century threat. It is a war that strikes at the heart of all that we hold dear, and there is only one response that is possible or rational: to meet their will to inflict terror with a greater will to defeat it; to confront their philosophy of hate with our own of tolerance and freedom; and to challenge their desire to frighten us, divide us, unnerve us with an unshakeable unity of purpose; to stand side by side with the United States of America and with our other allies in the world, to rid our world of this evil once and for all. (See note 1)

The claim that a strategy which directly results in 14,000 civilian deaths is the expression of a "philosophy of tolerance and freedom" is incomprehensible. This incomprehension is shared by the majority of the world's people. Such incomprehension fuels anger and hate in the Arab world, and disillusionment and cynicism among the electorates of the countries whose taxes have funded the 14,000 deaths of innocents. By failing to face up to the issue of civilian deaths in an honest and direct fashion, Blair and Bush have lost the respect and sympathy of most decent people. After 9/11 there was an enormous outpouring of sympathy and goodwill towards the USA around the world. It has all been squandered.

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 U.S., for fear this would be aiding Saddam, may now feel no such restraint.

The official response to civilian deaths has long been one of artless evasion and obfuscation. The tactics by which the US and UK authorities have so far tried to contain and deflect concerns about casualties in Iraq are fivefold:

(a) Denial of knowledge, and denial of the possibility of gaining accurate knowledge;
(b) Denial of responsibility (placing the responsibility on convenient "others" at various points in time -- e.g., Saddam during the war, Al Qaida for recent bombings);
(c) The establishment of "investigations" which are never completed or reported;
(d) Repeated deflection of attention away from Iraqi deaths onto US and UK deaths;
(e) Insultingly low token "compensation" payments to some Iraqi claimants;

In September 2003, Adam Ingram, the UK defence 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." (7)

Like the UK, the Pentagon maintains that it does all it can to minimise civilian casualties, a claim incompatible with, among other things, its use of cluster bombs.

In December 2003, it was reported that the Coalition Provisional Authority 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." (8)

None of the responses emanating from Washington, London, or Baghdad makes sense, and mostly incorporate an implicit double standard, a standard which values the life of a Westerner far above the life of an Arab or an Asian.

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.

Second, 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." (See note 4) 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 U.S. and the 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 Hague regulations, Britain and the U.S. 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.

Two main conclusions follow from the above analysis:

(a) None of the tactics adopted by the Coalition are defensible. There is detailed and accurate knowledge available, and more can be found through entirely feasible investigations. International law and natural justice makes the USA and the UK responsible for the vast majority of the deaths that have occurred. There is a clear moral obligation for massive compensation to the families of Iraqi victims, on the same scale to those paid out by Germany after the 2nd world war, as the aggressor nation.

(b) Even if none of the moral and legal arguments are accepted, the tactics currently being adopted are not in the pragmatic self-interest of the USA and the UK. They are counterproductive in that they inflame long-term anti-US and anti-UK feeling among the Iraqi population and Arab nations, reducing the likelihood of a quick end to the conflict, and putting UK and US citizens at greater risk from paramilitary, political, and economic reprisals.

The Iraq Body Count Project

Since the start of hostilities, Iraq Body Count has been tracking civilian deaths through worldwide media reports. All its researchers are citizens of either the USA or the UK. This is a deliberate policy. Only the USA and the UK hold serious responsibility for what happens in Iraq, and so the responsibility for civilian deaths since March 19, 2003 thus falls on every US and UK citizen, for failing to stop our politicians leading us to war.

Our methodology is simple and transparent, and published in full on our web site, along with our data, and the names and personal details of members of the research team. Where at least two reliable media sources report a specific number of civilians killed we add the details to our on-line database, providing a minimum and a maximum to accommodate variations in reporting, and other uncertainties. Our research team meticulously compares each new report to incidents already in our data base, and adjusts numbers accordingly to avoid the possibility of double counting. Our figures have never been seriously challenged by any official or media source, indeed they are widely quoted by major press agencies. Where in doubt we have always erred on the side of caution, and we are confident that there are, in fact, significantly more civilian deaths than are included in our data base -- from incidents where no numerically detailed reports were able to reach the world's journalists.

We will continue our daily work of scanning and analysing the world's media 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 honoured -- and their relatives compensated -- for it is they who have paid most dearly for the decisions of our politicians.


[Some of the material in this article first appeared in The Guardian on December 19, 2003: "We must honour the dead," http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,3604,1110060,00.html (last visited: January 6, 2004).]

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Other Essays in this Special Issue

By topic: Previous || Next || Issue Cover Page || Contents

Or jump to any one author (in alphabetical order): Tanweer Akram || Justin Alexander || Anthony Arnove || Naseer Aruri || Jan Baughman || George Capaccio || Milo Clark || Gregory Elich || Sara Flounders & John Catalinotto || Manuel García || Denis J. Halliday || Edward S. Herman || Rania Masri || Thomas J. Nagy, et al. || Michael Parenti || Louis Proyect || John Sloboda || Gerard Donnelly Smith || Michael W. Stowell



Iraq on Swans (all articles regarding Iraq published on Swans)

Outside Resources on Iraq (Web sites of interest)

Additional Resources (compiled by Tanweer Akram)

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1.  Transcript: the Bush-Blair press conference. Downing Street transcript of the joint conference held by the prime minister, Tony Blair and the US president, George Bush, at the Foreign Office Thursday November 20, 2003
http://politics.guardian.co.uk/iraq/story/0,12956,1089630,00.html (last visited: January 6, 2004).  (back)

2.  A dossier on civilian victims of United States Aeriel Bombing of Afghanistan, by Marc W. Herold, March 2003
http://www.cursor.org/stories/civilian_deaths.htm (last visited: January 6, 2004).  (back)

3.  "Afghanistan Realities: 'War on Terror' is a Cruel Hoax," by John Pilger, Palestine Chronicle, October 6, 2003
http://www.palestinechronicle.com/story.php?sid=20031006140143737 (last visited: January 6, 2004).  (back)

4.  "A New Account of Sept. 11 Loss, With 40 Fewer Souls to Mourn," by Dan Barry, The New York Times, October 29, 2003
http://www.nytimes.com/2003/10/29/nyregion/29ABOU.html?ex=1068008400&en=221deb3106963430&ei=5062&partner=GOOGLE (last visited: January 6, 2004).  (back)

5.  "9/11 death toll lowered," One News (New Zealand), October 30, 2003
http://onenews.nzoom.com/onenews_detail/0,1227,232081-1-9,00.html (last visited: January 6, 2004).  (back)

6.  "Four Former Heads Of Israeli Security Speak Out," by Charley Reese, Antiwar.com, November 24, 2003
http://www.antiwar.com/reese/reese4.html (last visited: January 6, 2004).  (back)

7.  The Independent, September 18, 2003, page 19 (www.independent.co.uk).  (back)

8.  "Iraq's Health Ministry ordered to stop counting civilian dead from war," by Niko Price, San Francisco Chronicle, December 10, 2003
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/news/archive/2003/12/10/international1027EST0569.DTL (last visited: January 6, 2004).  (back)

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Published February 2, 2004