A year has passed since the first bombs were dropped in the U.S.-led coalition’s invasion of Iraq, and many questions have been raised about the validity of the war. But for human-rights activists, a more important question lingers: How many Iraqi civilians died during and after major combat?
Reports and surveys from humanitarian organizations and news agencies differ in scope, but all put their civilian casualty count above 3,000. Researchers and western journalists in Iraq say they are confident these estimates are reliable, but that the true number of deaths may never be known.
Niko Price is an Associated Press reporter who surveyed half of Iraq’s hospitals to determine the number of Iraqi civilians killed during major combat. Last June, he published an article that said more than 3,240 Iraqi civilians had died between March 20 and April 20, 2003. But, Price said, that figure could be much higher.
“It is impossible to get concrete numbers of Iraqi casualties,” he said.
Department of Defense questions accuracy of reports
The U.S. Department of Defense, which has resisted tracking civilian casualties since the war started, is skeptical of the numbers reported by various news outlets and humanitarian agencies. According to a statement issued by the DOD press office, the actual number of civilian deaths is much lower than what some of these organizations are releasing.
“Many reports out of the region were highly suspect, some merely repeating Saddam’s lies, while others routinely exaggerated the facts,” said an official quoted in the DOD statement. “We spend more time, effort and money than any nation on earth to avoid civilian casualties and collateral damage.”
Before he was captured in mid-December, Saddam Hussein charged that anywhere from 13,000 to 45,000 Iraqi civilians had died as a consequence of American attacks during the nine-week invasion. In October, the Project on Defense Alternatives, a Massachusetts-based arms control think tank, released a report that estimated between 3,200 and 4,300 Iraqi civilians died during operation Iraqi Freedom.
Poor living conditions
Most civilian casualty reports are limited to Iraqis who died during the operation, which lasted from March 20 to April 1, 2003, and not on those who have been killed since major combat ended. Price said that years of economic sanctions had contributed to the poor quality of life in the country. Since the war ended, he said, “poor living conditions and destroyed infrastructure have killed countless more, but it’s complicated to count.”
Those who have visited Iraq since the war ended are stunned by the destruction and poverty that Iraqis face.
After 13 years in exile, Rahim AlHaj recently returned to Iraq for a monthlong visit. He says he couldn’t recognize the streets where he once played as a child in a neighborhood southeast of Baghdad. Carcasses of bomb-damaged houses line streets flooded with sewage, said AlHaj, an Iraqi composer who recently performed in Columbia to benefit Iraqi children.
“I was shocked,” he said. “ Iraqi people are happy because there is no Saddam anymore, but at the same time I feel that they are desperate for assistance and good leadership.”
AlHaj, who now lives in Albuquerque, N.M., said hospitals are packed with children and sections of the city remain without electricity and clean water.
The Project on Defense Alternatives, which researches issues related to security policies, is one of the few agencies that has studied the number of post-war civilian casualties. One of the organization’s researchers, Carl Conetta, said that since major combat ended, rough estimates of civilians killed by crossfire between U.S. soldiers and insurgents and terrorist bomb attacks have reached 2,500.
Conetta said the figures were based on investigations of hospital records and reports from Western news agencies.
Other reports have suggested that such estimates grossly underestimate the total number of civilian casualties in Iraq. For instance, Body Count, a U.S. and British coalition of academics, estimates that, as of last month, the total number of casualties ranges from 8,249 to more than 10,000. In a November 2003 report, British Medact, a not-for-profit affiliate of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, put the civilian death toll at between 21,700 and 55,000.
These last two reports are the most widely used by the Arab media, including the influential al-Jazeera, a 24-hour satellite news television network that broadcasts all over the Arab world.