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.
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.
US ground forces approaching Baghdad have also made liberal use of artillery, which is far less accurate than the smart bombs that make up some 80 percent of munitions dropped by bombers. Nor are smart bombs always as pinpoint as US military spokesmen suggest, according to the US Air Force's own specifications. Joint Direct Action Munitions (JDAMs), guided by the global positioning system, are designed to land within 32 to 42 feet of their intended target, though many do not.
While this is not a problem in open country, even an accurately targeted JDAM will damage everything in the surrounding area of a town. With a lethal blast radius of 45 yards, 2,000-pound bombs like those aimed at Saddam Hussein Monday are bound to kill or maim people some distance from the target.
"I think precision munitions are as good as advertised, but you can aim a 1,000-pound bomb precisely, and it is still not going to take out just one building," says Andrew Brookes, at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "It makes a very big hole."
One reason the ratio of civilians killed to bombs dropped was four times as high in Afghanistan as in Kosovo, Mr. Conetta says, is that many Taliban military positions were in urban areas.
This is proving a dilemma for US planners in Iraq, too. Iraqi forces have placed antiaircraft batteries in Baghdad, ammunition dumps have been found in residential areas of other towns, and troops have taken up positions near civilian housing.
Another reason for the higher civilian casualty rate in Afghanistan, suggests Conetta, was the increased use of cluster bombs, which saturate an area the size of a football field with explosives and tiny flying shards of steel.
Coalition spokesmen have acknowledged using such bombs in Iraq, but say they have not been dropped in or around towns. But Iraqi doctors in rural districts have told Western reporters they believe civilians they have treated were killed or injured by cluster bombs.
In most modern wars, civilian deaths far outnumber military casualties, but not directly because of fighting. "Ninety percent of war casualties are civilian, and most of them die as a result of famine or the breakdown of medical facilities, not in combat," says Geoff Davis, director of the Peace Studies program at the University of Natal in South Africa.
In the war-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo, "at least 3.3 million people died in excess of what would normally be expected" between August 1998 and November 2002, the International Rescue Committee reported Tuesday. "Some 85 percent have been from easily treatable diseases and malnutrition, linked to displacement and the collapse of much of the country's health system."
A similar if much smaller tragedy befell Iraq after the Gulf War, says Beth Osborne Daponte, a demographer at Carnegie Mellon University. On top of the 3,500 Iraqi civilians who died as a direct result of bombing in 1991, she estimates, another 111,000 died that year from "war-induced adverse health effects," such as the lack of clean water.
Baghdad has been without drinking water for nearly a week, since the electricity went out. Coalition spokesmen deny their forces were responsible.
"It seems we have learned at least some lessons from 1991," says Dr. Daponte. "In that war, electricity was a target. Now we hear the Americans saying that they do not intend to attack infrastructure."