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655,000 Iraqis killed since the invasion
The horrific toll of the U.S. war

October 20, 2006 | Page 5

ERIC RUDER looks at new revelations that document the scale of atrocities committed by the U.S. in Iraq.

THE COUNTERATTACK began almost immediately. From the moment a team of U.S. and Iraqi researchers reported in mid-October that the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq had caused some 655,000 Iraqi deaths, the campaign to discredit the researchers and their report kicked into high gear.

"The numbers are preposterously high," said Michael O'Hanlon, an analyst at the liberal Brookings Institution. "Their numbers are out of whack with every other estimate."

Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a military think-tank in Washington claimed that the study's release--just before the November elections--was timed for political impact. "This is not analysis, this is politics," he said.

More serious attacks claimed that the report, issued by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, used flawed methods.

What else to read

-- Download a pdf file of the Consumers for Peace report on U.S. war crimes in Iraq.

-- Download a pdf file of the Johns Hopkins study on war-related deaths in Iraq.


But the study, which was published last week on the Web site of the British medical journal The Lancet, makes a compelling case for its conclusions. So does another report entitled "War Crimes Committed by the United States in Iraq and Mechanisms for Accountability," prepared by the antiwar group Consumers for Peace, with the advice of noted human rights lawyer Karen Parker.

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DETRACTORS OF the Johns Hopkins report insist the number of Iraqi casualties couldn't possibly be so high since no other survey even comes close.

The most widely cited source of Iraqi civilian deaths--the Iraq Body Count Web site--currently reports between 43,937 and 48,783 Iraqis killed since the U.S. invasion. But Iraq Body Count (IBC) only counts deaths reported by two media outlets on its list of approved sources--and one criterion for that list is the publication has an English-language Web site.

As a consequence, IBC drastically undercounts the civilian death toll--especially considering that Iraq is today so dangerous that few reporters even venture outside of the U.S.-controlled Green Zone in Baghdad.

In contrast, the John Hopkins researchers sent out teams of surveyors and collected information from 1,800 randomly selected households with 12,801 people. They used the same methodology that led them to conclude in 2004 that the U.S. invasion and occupation had resulted in 100,000 "excess deaths"--the number beyond the mortality rate before the invasion.

The researchers' process was used--without controversy--in other war zones and disaster areas, from the Congo to the Balkans to the Katrina-ravaged Gulf Coast.

The researchers asked each household for the number of deaths in the immediate pre-invasion period to establish a baseline mortality rate, and then compared this to the number of deaths in each household since the invasion in March 2003.

Not only did the death rate skyrocket from 5.5 deaths per 1,000 people before invasion to 13.2 deaths per 1,000 in the 40 months since, but the vast majority--more than 600,000--were due to violent causes, such as gunfire, air strikes and bombs.

Statistical analysts agree with the Johns Hopkins researchers' expectation of the accuracy of their methods--95 percent certainty that the actual number is no lower than 425,000 and no higher than 793,000.

The percentage of post-invasion deaths from violent means--more than 90 percent of "excess deaths"--is a sharp contrast to the pre-invasion rate of 2 percent of deaths by violent means. The survey also found that an overwhelming number--87 percent--of deaths have occurred not in the initial invasion, but in the occupation that followed--and that coalition air strikes and attacks account for 31 percent of these deaths.

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THE WAR crimes report by Consumers for Peace illustrates how such an astonishing number of Iraqis could have been killed by violence. It also details the direct responsibility of the U.S. in creating conditions of insecurity and humanitarian crisis.

According to the report, U.S. occupation forces systematically committed war crimes in Iraq--such as the U.S. military's targeting of Iraq's medical infrastructure, its disregard for providing clean water and electricity to the civilian population, and its use of internationally prohibited chemical and radioactive weapons.

"The rules of engagement instruct U.S. soldiers to bring withering force to bear on positions they're attacked from, even when an insurgent ducks into a private house for cover," according to a January 2004 Christian Science Monitor report quoted in the Consumers for Peace study.

"One sergeant puts it this way: 'If someone runs into a house, we're going to light it up. If civilians get killed in there, that's a tragedy, but we're going to keep doing it and people are going to get the message that they should do whatever they can to keep these people out of their neighborhoods."

Such "rules of engagement" are a clear violation of international law, which both obligates foreign occupation forces to safeguard the security of civilians and enshrines armed resistance as the legal right of a population under occupation.

U.S. military commanders have also acknowledged, after initial denials, that both napalm-like compounds and white phosphorous have been used in Iraq--with predictably horrific results. Napalm, which is a mixture of jet fuel and sticky gel, and white phosphorous both create fiery explosions--water is of no use in extinguishing these chemicals once on the skin, which melts away.

U.S. use of armor-piercing depleted uranium (DU) rounds has also led to terrible sicknesses and medical conditions among Iraqis. "Widespread use of DU weapons in Iraq has resulted in an escalating incidence of birth defects, cancers, and other illnesses and conditions related to use of this type of uranium," according to the report. "In Basra, for example, where DU was used by invading U.S. forces in 1991, cancer rates increased nine-fold in the eight years after their use...

"The conclusion, as one analyst puts it, is '[w]e can now say with certainty that the only WMDs in Iraq were those that were introduced by foreign invaders from the U.S. who have used them to subjugate the indigenous people.'"

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BASED ON the Johns Hopkins study, an average of 500 Iraqis have been dying every day since the U.S. invasion began. That's five times higher than the 100 deaths a day at the height of the sectarian killings this summer--an estimate from the United Nations, based on morgue reports.

Morgue reports, like media reports, are likely to undercount actual deaths, especially in Iraq. The custom among Iraqi Muslims is to bury the dead by sunset of the day the person died, which doesn't always permit bodies to be taken to the morgue, according to Iraq expert Juan Cole.

"Although there are benefits to registering with the government for a death certificate, there are also disadvantages," said Cole. "Many families who have had someone killed believe that the government or the Americans were involved, and will have wanted to avoid drawing further attention to themselves by filling out state forms and giving their address."

Still, the most astonishing attempt to refute the findings of the new Lancet study came from George Bush himself. Asked about the study by a CNN reporter, Bush predictably said he didn't believe the Johns Hopkins report was "credible," but then offered this assessment.

"I do know that a lot of innocent people have died, and it troubles me and grieves me," said Bush. "And I applaud the Iraqis for their courage in the face of violence. I am, you know, amazed that this is a society which so wants to be free that they're willing to--you know, that there's a level of violence that they tolerate."

Bush's claim to speak on behalf of the Iraqi people--especially about their "willingness" to accept being killed by U.S. forces--is offensive.

An early September opinion poll conducted for the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes shows that Iraqis blame the U.S. for their situation. Almost 80 percent say that the U.S. military provokes more violence than it prevents in Iraq. And 61 percent--up from 47 percent in January--now approve of resistance attacks on U.S. forces.

Another survey found that Iraqis are so desperate to flee the violence that some 890,000 Iraqis have moved to Jordan, Iran and Syria since Saddam Hussein's fall, and another 300,000 (and perhaps many more) have fled to other parts of Iraq.

These are shocking numbers in a country of some 26 million--650,000 dead and more than 1 million on the move. The equivalent proportion of the U.S. population would be 20 million people dead or made refugees.

Bush's disregard for Iraqi life explains the frustration of Salih Al-Jabiri. "What difference does it make whether the number is 30,000 or 200,000 for God's sake?" Al-Jabiri told independent journalist Dahr Jamail, when the IBC Web site was reporting that roughly 30,000 Iraqi civilians had died.

"It is people's lives you are counting here, not farm chickens! Do you people mean we should be happy to believe U.S. statistics of only 30,000? But we are not happy with this insultingly low number, when all of us know the true number is so much higher."

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