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Surveys pointing to high civilian death toll in Iraq

Preliminary reports suggest casualties well above the Gulf War.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 22, 2003



BAGHDAD

Evidence is mounting to suggest that between 5,000 and 10,000 Iraqi civilians may have died during the recent war, according to researchers involved in independent surveys of the country.

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None of the local and foreign researchers were willing to speak for the record, however, until their tallies are complete.

Such a range would make the Iraq war the deadliest campaign for noncombatants that US forces have fought since Vietnam.

Though it is still too early for anything like a definitive estimate, the surveyors warn, preliminary reports from hospitals, morgues, mosques, and homes point to a level of civilian casualties far exceeding the Gulf War, when 3,500 civilians are thought to have died.

"Thousands are dead, thousands are missing, thousands are captured," says Haidar Taie, head of the tracing department for the Iraqi Red Crescent in Baghdad. "It is a big disaster."

By one measure of violence against noncombatants, as compared with resistance faced by soldiers, the war in Iraq was particularly brutal. In Operation Just Cause, the 1989 US invasion of Panama, 13 Panamanian civilians died for every US military fatality. If 5,000 Iraqi civilians died in the latest war, that proportion would be 33 to 1.

US and British military officials insisted throughout the war that their forces did all they could to avoid civilian casualties. But it has become clear since the fighting ended that bombs did go astray, that targets were chosen in error, and that as US troops pushed rapidly north toward the capital they killed thousands of civilians from the air and from the ground.

There are no figures at all for Iraqi military casualties, which Iraqi officials kept secret. One factor that led to many civilian deaths, and which complicates the task of counting them accurately, is that irregular fedayeen militia hid in civilian homes as they fought advancing coalition troops, and dressed as civilians.

Nor are hospital records - kept in the heat of war under intense pressure on doctors and staff - necessarily accurate, some observers warn. That means they probably underestimate the real scale of civilian deaths, although at the same time they may have recorded some combatant casualties as civilian ones.

"We had some figures from hospital sources but we realized very quickly that they were very partial," says Nada Doumani, an official with the International Committee of the Red Cross in Baghdad. "It is very difficult to keep track of everyone who was killed, and we were afraid the numbers could be misinterpreted, so we refrained from giving them out."

"During the war, some people brought bodies to the hospitals to get death certificates; others just buried them where they were found in the street, or in schools," adds Faik Amin Bakr, director of the Baghdad morgue. "I don't think anyone in Iraq could give you the figure of civilian deaths at the moment."

House-to-house survey

The chaos of the war and the confusion that persists in Iraq, where central government is still not functioning, have led one US human rights group with experience in counting civilian casualties in Afghanistan to launch a nationwide house-to-house survey of areas where fighting was fierce.

The Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC) has mobilized 150 surveyors to carry out detailed interviews with victims of the war; recording deaths, injuries, and damage to property with a view to securing assistance from US government funds.

A full accounting could take months, says CIVIC coordinator Marla Ruzicka, and the group is still compiling its data. But its volunteers have already recorded more than 1,000 civilian deaths in the southern town of Nasariyah, and almost as many in the capital.

"In Baghdad, we have discovered 1,000 graves, and that is not the final figure," says Ali Ismail, a Red Crescent official. "Every day we discover more" where local residents say civilians were buried.

Researchers say they have found particularly high levels of civilian casualties along the Euphrates River, between Nasariyah and Najaf, where US Marines fought their way toward Baghdad.

"The biggest contrast between Afghan- istan (where an estimated 1,800 civilians died during the US-led campaign there in 2001) and Iraq is that Afghanistan was predominantly an air war and this was a ground/air battle," says Reuben Brigety, a researcher for Human Rights Watch.

"Air wars are not flawless, but if you have precision weapons you can do a lot to make them more accurate," he adds. "The same is not yet true of ground combat. It is clear the ground battle took a toll; ground war is nasty."

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