Surveys pointing to high civilian death toll in Iraq

Preliminary reports suggest casualties well above the Gulf War.

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.

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."

A focus on cluster bombs

Dr. Brigety and his colleagues in Baghdad say they are especially concerned by the wide use of cluster bombs during the war in Iraq.

They say they have found evidence of "massive use of cluster bombs in densely populated areas," according to Human Rights Watch researcher Marc Galasco, contradicting coalition claims that such munitions were used only in deserted areas.

Dispersing thousands of bomblets that shoot out shards of shrapnel over an area the size of a football field, such weapons become indiscriminate and thus illegal under the laws of war, if used in civilian neighborhoods, Human Rights Watch has argued during past conflicts.

"At one level it is unhelpful to talk about large or small numbers" of civilian casualties, says Brigety. "It is more important to ask if the deaths were preventable."

The combination of cluster-bomb use, inaccurate artillery fire at Iraqi troops concentrated near civilian areas, and street fighting in towns throughout Iraq means that the number of civilian deaths might be as high as 10,000, say two researchers from two different teams who asked not to be identified until the evidence was clearer.

Also waiting for clearer evidence are US government agencies mandated by Congress to assist civilian victims of the war in Iraq.

At the instigation of Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont, the Iraq war supplemental bill, signed by President Bush April 16, directs that an unspecified amount of the $2.4 billion appropriated for relief and reconstruction in Iraq should pay for "assistance for families of innocent Iraqi civilians who suffer losses as a result of military operations."

"Perhaps it is impossible to eliminate these kinds of mistakes, but you can do something for the victims after the fact," says Tim Rieser, an aide to Senator Leahy.

Mourning his children

But that is little comfort to Mahmoud Ali Hamadi. Hugging his 18-month-old son, Haidar, to his breast for comfort, he cannot hold back his sobs as he recounts how a US missile that landed by his front gate killed his wife and three elder children on the night of April 5.

"My children were the brightest in the whole school," he recalls, looking fondly at an old family photograph through his tears. "Eleven years I spent raising them, and in one instant I lost them."

Mr. Hamadi's family died in Rashidiya, a village of palm groves and vegetable plots on the banks of the Tigris, half an hour north of Baghdad.

Nearly 100 villagers were killed by US bombing and strafing on April 5, including 43 in one house, for reasons that they do not understand. "There was no military base here," says Hamadi. "We are not military personnel. This is just a peasant village."

The need to provide assistance

Civilian victims of US military action in Afghanistan - identified by a team led by Ruzicka - are also supposed to receive assistance. So far, however, USAID has not disbursed any of that money, citing security risks and other problems in the parts of Afghanistan where the money is meant to be spent.

"We have a responsibility to provide assistance, especially when we were the cause," says Mr. Rieser.

"It is in our interest to make the point that this was not a war against the Iraqi people," he says. Senator Leahy's hope, he adds, is that the aid will "build goodwill for the US, which seems to be shrinking by the day in Iraq."

That would appear to be a vain hope in the case of Hamadi, as he mourns the loss of his family. "The Americans are assassins," he says wearily, his face worn by grief. "I haven't complained to the Americans. What would I get if I complained to them? I have complained only to God."

• Nongovernmental and media organizations have produced widely varying figures on the number of Iraqi civilians killed during the recent conflict. The range is a result of incomplete, unconfirmable, and unavailable information., a website that draws on media accounts and eyewitness reports, estimates that between 4,065 and 5,223 Iraqi civilians have been killed as a result of coalition military action, both during and after the war.

• A May 15 Associated Press report gives an estimate of 2,100 to 2,600 civilian deaths, without citing sources.

• The US Department of Defense has refused to give any sort of estimate on deaths.

• Two news organizations have produced estimates of civilian casualties in just the Baghdad area by canvassing hospitals and tallying their records. The Los Angeles Times reported on May 18 that probably between 1,700 and 2,700 civilians were killed in and around Baghdad. The Knight Ridder agency published an estimate of between 1,100 and 2,355 on May 4.

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