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Iraqi Deaths Rise But
No Count On Bodies

By Fiona O'Brien

13 February,2004

The U.S. military knows 537 of its soldiers have been killed in the war in Iraq, can cite names, how and when they died. But when it comes to dead Iraqi civilians, it will not even talk hundreds or thousands.

Independent thinktanks estimate as many as 10,000 civilians may have died as a direct result of the U.S.-led military intervention in Iraq, either during the war or in attacks aimed at uprooting the occupation.

U.S. authorities in Iraq say they keep no official tally.

"We don't track, we don't have the capacity to track all civilian casualties," Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt said. He said some numbers were available, but too unreliable to use.

It is indeed impossible to count every death. The lines between civilians and combatants are sometimes blurred, bodies buried before they can be counted. But analysts say it is also in Washington's interests to keep the toll quiet.

"In the final analysis, what determines what this administration does is how the American public responds to it," said Carl Conetta of the Project for Defence Alternatives, who is preparing a report on how Washington manages news from Iraq.

"You would not get support if you said we are going to go in and 15,000 people are going to die...Americans need to believe this is doable. They don't want to hear that this will start a cycle of violence. They don't want to hear it practically and they don't want to hear it morally."


Rights groups say it is important to have at least an estimate of civilian deaths. Individual incidents -- 53 dead in Iskandariya on Tuesday, 47 in Baghdad on Wednesday -- belie the scale of the war and can be quickly forgotten, they say.

The Iraq Body Count group, which bases its assessment on media reports, says up to 10,089 Iraqi civilians have died because of the war. The group's co-founder John Sloboda admits the count is flawed, but says even an estimate can be powerful.

"Political leaders say it was worth it to go to war," he said. "But if you don't know the cost, how can you say it was worth it? Stories of women and children -- this is what turns ordinary citizens in the West against war."

Analysts say turning ordinary citizens against the war it launched is precisely what Washington does not want to do, especially with a presidential election coming up in November.

On the ground in Iraq, civilian deaths do have repercussions, fuelling the insurgency as frustration at the occupation mounts. But keeping numbers hazy for the audience at home and beyond is an exercise in damage limitation.

"You need to maintain the legitimacy of the operation, the legitimacy of U.S. power," Conetta said. "Maintain the illusion that we can fight wars like this without causing a lot of problems, that there won't be a backlash."

When it comes to civilians killed in major bomb attacks, which back up the idea that Iraq is the new front line in Washington's "war on terror", the U.S. is relatively open.

But it is rare to get information about smaller attacks or about those civilians killed in error by U.S. soldiers.

Kimmitt and other U.S. officials say it is impossible to tally these deaths. Muslims bury their dead quickly, they say, troops cannot be everywhere. Rights groups say not publishing numbers adds to the false perspective outsiders have of the war.

"At the moment it seems like there are only attacks against Americans and only Americans are dying, or Iraqis who die during very severe terrorist attacks," said Paola Gasparoli from Occupation Watch, which monitors the conduct of troops in Iraq.

"There is no idea that there are also innocent civilians killed because of the occupation. To admit that would be to admit the war isn't really finished."