In 2006, when the British medical journal The Lancet published a study that found 601,000 Iraqis had died as a consequence of the war there (either from violence or a decline in medical care), it prompted a storm of controversy and led newspapers around the world.
Amid the hot political debate in the US and United Kingdom over the wisdom of the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, critics of the invasion seized on it as evidence of what a mistake the war was, and supporters dismissed the findings as politically driven. "Not credible," was President George W. Bush's verdict the day the report was released. That report, based on the extrapolation of limited surveys, was later found by some in the academic community to have serious flaws.
Now The Lancet has published another report on casualties in Iraq, looking narrowly at the toll on civilians from suicide bombers. Their data was drawn from Iraqbodycount.org, which has kept track of casualties in Iraq using press reporting since the start of the war. The numbers – almost certainly an understatement since not every act of violence makes it into the press – are staggering.
With the US preparing to either fully withdraw from Iraq at the end of the year or at minimum cut down to a "residual" force of about 12,000, events in Iraq don't get anywhere near the attention they used to. But the findings by Dr. Madelyn Hsiao-Rei Hicks and her colleagues deserve attention, because of what they say about Iraq's recent past and it's looming future.
The report documented 1,003 suicide attacks in Iraq between 2003-10, which killed 12,284 civilians and injured a further 30,644. The Lancet authors found 108,624 civilian deaths from violence of all kinds in the period. To put that in perspective by adjusting for population, that would be equivalent to 1 million Americans killed in a seven-year period. And the violence has continued. Earlier this week, 28 worshipers were murdered by a suicide bomber at Baghdad's Umm al-Qura mosque.
The horrible toll from suicide bombing in Iraq also tells the tale of why Al Qaeda and its Iraqi fellow travelers have failed so miserably at achieving any of their political goals inside the country. While the fall of Saddam Hussein allowed Sunni jihadis to gain a foothold in Iraq, and they were the spectacular drivers of violence on the Sunni side of the country's Sunni-Shiite civil war, their own excesses have alienated Iraq's Sunni Arabs in general. The hope of Al Qaeda and its local ally, the self-proclaimed "Islamic State of Iraq," was that US troops would generate lots of civilian casualties in Iraq, and drive fighters to their banner.
But while there have been violent excesses by US troops in Iraq (a US diplomatic cable recently released by Wikileaks contains a UN complaint that US troops participated in a massacre of 10 civilians and a cover-up near Saddam Hussein's hometown in 2006), Iraqis came to understand that civilian casualties were far more often carried out by jihadis claiming to fight the "occupiers." With the US headed for the exits – and no promising signs that Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will approve an extension of the US stay beyond the Dec. 31 deadline – Al Qaeda-type organizations increasingly look like murderers of average Iraqis.
That doesn't mean the problem is going to go away. Iraq's sectarian divisions remain wide and the wounds of so much bloodshed on the national psyche simply can't heal overnight. Sectarian tinder remains thick on the ground, and reignition of outright war can't be dismissed as impossible. For instance, a jihadi attack on Iraq's Askariyah Shrine, one of the holiest sites in the country for Shiites, in February 2006 whipped up sectarian hatred to new heights.The hard work of reconciliation in Iraq, of closing the wounds of its war, has only just begun.
But the immediate message of all that bloodshed at the hands of suicide bombers is that Al Qaeda and its friends, once again, have shown that all they're good for is destruction. Whatever political capital the group had on the Iraqi street as "resistance" to the US, has dwindled to its hard-core supporters. The group's ambitions for Iraq have failed, by its own hand.