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Bid to stem civilian deaths tested

As US-led battle moves through Baghdad, concerns grow about high risk to ordinary Iraqis.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 9, 2003


As the battle for Baghdad intensifies - and hospitals run out of supplies to care for wounded men, women, and children - concerns are rising that US forces might inflict higher civilian casualties than in any other recent war they've fought.

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Battling in urban areas against Iraqi troops often holed up in civilian buildings, dropping massive bombs with broad "kill zones," and firing inaccurate artillery, they could kill or wound thousands of ordinary Iraqis, say military experts who have studied past wars.

US military spokesmen have repeatedly stated that US and British troops will do everything in their power to keep civilian casualties to a minimum. But the style of the current fighting makes civilian combat deaths more likely. "We do know indeed that as we conduct military operations in urban areas, the chance of civilian casualties increases," Central Command spokesman Gen. Vincent Brooks acknowledged to reporters in Doha, Qatar, yesterday.

By the standards of most recent wars, the Iraq conflict has killed relatively few civilians so far, since there has been no public-health disaster. Independent aid agencies and US relief officials are standing by to repair overstretched hospitals and damaged water-pumping stations so as to avoid the dangers that make civilians 90 percent of the casualty toll in most modern conflicts.

But the nature of the war, and of the munitions, leads some observers to predict high levels of "collateral damage."

"I'd expect a higher civilian casualty rate, perhaps much higher, than we saw in Afghanistan," the most lethal war the US has fought in a decade, says Carl Conetta, director of the Project on Defense Alternatives, a Boston think tank.

The "fog of war" and the absence of independent monitors in most of the country make any meaningful count of civilian casualties in Iraq almost impossible for the time being. The Iraqi minister of information, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, claimed last week that at least 1,252 civilians had been killed since the war began, but he has been an unreliable source on other aspects of the war.

"Nobody can give an accurate assessment of civilian casualties at this difficult time," says Muin Kassis, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, the only humanitarian organization to have international staff in the country.

Nevertheless, past experience offers some indications of the likely scale of the war's impact on civilians, experts say.

The most conservative estimates of civilian deaths in Afghanistan put the number killed at between 1,000 and 1,300 by some of the 12,000 bombs and missiles US warplanes dropped.

So far, about 18,000 such munitions have been aimed at Iraq, according to Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. Most of them have fallen on areas more heavily populated than most target zones in Afghanistan.

The area 30 miles south of Baghdad, for example, where planes launched a savage weeklong assault on Republican Guard positions, has a population density similar to that of Connecticut.