Monday, July 12, 2004

# Posted 12:57 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

IRAQ BODY COUNT: Bob Herbert mentions in passing, without reference to his source, that 10,000 civilians have died in Iraq since the US invasion began. To the best of my knowledge, the US military still refuses to investigate the issues, thus opening up the field of play to much less reputable institutions.

One of those less reputable institutions is Iraq Body Count, which currently reports that between eleven and thirteen thousand civlians have died in Iraq. That name may ring a bell, since Josh took a careful look at IBC's flawed methodology shortly after the fall of Baghdad. At the time, IBC had calculated that 1,800 civilians had been killed during the invasion.

According to Human Rights Watch, there is no reliable count of how many civilians have lost their lives during the invasion and the occupation. So, has IBC done anything to improve the situation?

Well, one interesting feature on its site is a list, by name, of 700 civlians killed in Iraq. Next to each name is the individual's age, sex, place of and time of death, cause of death, and source of information about their death.

The fourth entry in the IBC lists refers to the "family of Metaq Ali", 29 of whom died as a result of a US air force attack. Thanks to Google, I was able to track down the wire report that provided IBC with the information about their deaths. It lists none of the 29 names of Ms. Ali's family members. Moreover, there is no verification of their deaths other than Ms. Ali's testimony.

While I am inclined to believe that Ms. Ali is telling the truth, I don't see how a responsible civilian casualty monitoring organization can rely on a single account provided by a witness it never interviewed. Moreover, it takes a lot of chutzpah for IBC to pretend that it knows the names of the 29 individuals allegedy killed by the American attack.

Scrolling further down the list, one notices that it often lists the cause of death as simply 'gunfire'. At first, I assumed that 'gunfire' meant Coalition gunfire, since the title at the beginning of the list says "Named and Identified Persons Killed as Result of Military Intervention in Iraq". But scrolling down a little further, I noticed that it includes more than 90 entries for individuals killed by a massive suicide attack on the offices of two Kurdish political parties this past February.

In other words, IBC is counting Iraqis killed by terrorists attacks -- this one possibly committed by Al Qaeda -- as victims of American intervention. In some abtract sense, this is true. If there had been no American invasion, it is highly unlikely that terrorists would have killed those specific individuals. On the other hand, if there had been no American invasion, it is absolutely certain that Saddam would've killed thousands of other innocent men, women and children.

Even so, it still worth asking whether IBC's own guidelines recommend including the victims of terrorist attacks, or whether the inclusion of the February attack in Kurdistan was a mistake. Answer: I'm not sure. According to IBC's published guidelines,
The test for us remains whether the bullet (or equivalent) is attributed to a piece of weaponry where the trigger was pulled by a US or allied finger, or is due to "collateral damage" by either side (with the burden of responsibility falling squarely on the shoulders of those who initiate war without UN Security Council authorization). We agree that deaths from any deliberate source are an equal outrage, but in this project we want to only record those deaths to which we can unambiguously hold our own leaders to account. In short, we record all civilians deaths attributed to our military intervention in Iraq.
The decision to include deaths resulting from "'collateral damage' by either side" (emphasis added) suggests that the victims of terrorist attacks should be included. On the other hand, 'collateral damage' usually refers to civilians accidentally killed during military operations, not civilians intentionally killed in order to provoke widespread fear. Moreover, IBC's desire to record only those deaths for which one can "unambiguously hold our own leaders to account" forces one to ask how the victims of terrorist bombings can possibly be included in this total.

Now let's turn to the main IBC database where the incidents responsible for the 10,000+ civilian casualties are included. At the top of the list, there is note which says
In the current occupation phase the database includes all deaths which the Occupying Authority has a binding responsibility to prevent under the Geneva Conventions and Hague Regulations. This includes civilian deaths resulting from the breakdown in law and order, and deaths due to inadequate health care or sanitation.
Even though I am not familiar with the Geneva and Hague regulations, I'm guessing that suicide bombings are not something that the Occupying Authority can be expected to prevent. Even so, that is the description that IBC itself gives to incidents 'k223' and 'k224'. I'm also pretty sure that incident 'x340', in which two kidnapped Iraqis had their throats slashed, was not the responsibility of occupation forces.

However, the prize for total absurdity goes to entry 'x344' which includes upwards of 1600 deaths described as "violent deaths recorded at the Baghdad city morgue". For details about the morgue reports, see this AP report, cited by IBC. To be fair, IBC notes (see above) the Occupying Authority is responsible for maintaining law and order. Still, what IBC is basically doing is holding the US responsible for street crime.

Before finishing this extra-long post, I think it's worth asking whether anyone takes IBC's numbers seriously. Well, one quick answer to that question comes from IBC's own news clippings site. The sad news is that Newsweek, the Christian Science Monitor, the Financial Times, Reuters, and the BBC. On a personal note, I am particularly concerned about Linda Colley, a very talented professor of mine at Yale, who took the IBC figures at face value in a column in The Guardian. (Although I guess it's possible that there are two British Linda Colleys.)

But, hey, who expected from better from our less-than-unbiased media? As Josh pointed out last year, major media outlets were already swallowing the IBC propaganda hook, line and sinker. Plus ca change...
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