Thursday, April 10, 2003
Body counts

With the doomsday predictions "that the (President George W.) Bush administration is intending to slaughter tens of thousands of Iraqi people" , it's important to be realistic about counting war casualties in Iraq.

Number of Iraqi Dead May Be Unknowable

The effort to number the dead on the Iraqi side in the war begins with a conundrum: who is a civilian and who is a soldier?

That is the million dollar question....

Some were clearly military: they wore uniforms and military boots. Others were obviously civilians: women, children and older people. Some were burned or blasted beyond recognition by bombs, artillery or grenades.

But perhaps hundreds more were men and boys of fighting age who arrived at hospitals and morgues in civilian clothes. Were they members of the Republican Guard who threw off their uniforms? Were they armed Baath party loyalists fighting for Saddam Hussein's government? Were they Fedayeen or other irregulars? If they were, could they have been trying to surrender and been killed by their own side?

The same puzzle exists across the country, more acutely and on a much larger scale in and around Baghdad. For example, relentless bombing and a week of ground combat left the Baghdad Division of Iraq's army reduced to "zero percent strength," according to Marine officers who engaged the division, once thought to number about 10,000 soldiers. Where are they?

. . .

In some incidents, there has been no doubt about the number of dead and their status as combatants or civilians. The shooting by American soldiers of a van at a checkpoint near Najaf in the first week of the war, for example, killed seven women and children. A marketplace bombing in Baghdad killed dozens of civilians, although which side was responsible is not clear.

. . .

That effort [the Iraq Body Count Project] also suffers from the same problem that pervades the entire enterprise of counting the Iraqi casualties. Are people working in government ministries civilians or, as the Pentagon likes to call them, "regime targets"? Is a woman suicide bomber a civilian or an enemy combatant?

We will probably never know how many Iraqis were killed. And we certainly will never know how many were killed by coalition forces. But there is something that is 100% certain: many more innocent Iraqis, as well as innocents around the world, would have been killed had we left Saddam in power.

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