A new US estimate of the number of Iraqis killed seven years after the US-led invasion serves as a reminder that civilians are dying on a daily basis in Iraq, writes Salah Hemeid
Former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright’s famous quotation apparently justifying the deaths of half a million Iraqi children as a result of the Washington- backed and UN-imposed sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s has often been remembered as a cold-blooded assertion of US policy objectives.
The aphorism came to mind again last week when US media reported that the United States had finally released its first official compilation of data on Iraqi casualties, more than seven years after its invasion of the country.
The report, posted on the US Central Command website in July, drew little notice until last Thursday, when media outlets published details showing that 63,185 civilians and 13,754 members of the Iraqi security forces had been killed from early 2004 to August 2008.
It is not clear why the figures did not include casualties from the immediate aftermath of the US-led invasion in 2003, or from the period after August 2008. It is not clear either how the data were compiled and using what methodology.
The figures seem to represent a "policy engineered" anti-climax as the Obama administration, facing a mid- term election challenge, tries to bring an end to America’s misadventure in Iraq.
The number of Iraqis killed during the US-led invasion and its aftermath has long been hotly debated, estimates ranging from fewer than 100,000 to more than a million.
Knowing how these latest US figures were arrived at would speak volumes about how the United States is faring as it prepares to exit from Iraq.
The casualty figures released by Washington are lower than those from Iraqi government sources. Last year, the Iraqi Ministry of Human Rights reported that 85,694 Iraqis, including military and police personnel, had been killed from the beginning of 2004 through to October 2008.
In January 2008, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that 151,000 deaths had taken place in the country due to the violence, with a 95 per cent confidence estimate of between 104,000 and 223,000 from March 2003 through to June 2006. The figures were based on the results of an Iraq family health survey published in the New England Journal of Medicine, a respected US journal.
Another estimate from the Iraq Body Count, a non- governmental organisation based in Britain that uses media accounts, has put the number of civilian dead in Iraq at 47,668 during the same period as the WHO study. The group’s latest figures for civilian deaths from violence in the country until September 19 2010 stood at between 98,252 and 107,235.
A 2006 survey in The Lancet, a British medical journal, estimated that more than 600,000 Iraqis had died as a result of the war, a figure more than 10 times higher than other estimates at the time.
Iraq has not officially reacted to any of the studies, though many Iraqis have rejected the new US figures on the number of civilian deaths in the conflict, saying that they are well below the actual numbers who have died.
The numbers are misleading, critics say, because they are not based on a well- defined methodology dealing with all violence-related deaths, including assassinations and in operations conducted by the US military.
Estimates of casualty figures during the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq have been controversial because of the high political stakes involved and the possibility of manipulation aimed at swaying public opinion. The recent report was prompted by a Freedom of Information Act request from the National Security Archive at George Washington University.
Scepticism has arisen about these latest figures not only because of possible discrepancies and the mysterious standards used to establish the magnitude of the casualties, but also because the parties involved have been reluctant to tell the truth about this human tragedy.
A fundamental question is why the US military, which bears primary responsibility for the conflict, failed to address the issue start from the start and why it did not keep accurate records on the victims of the invasion and occupation.
The military’s apparent incapacity to provide statistics about the causalities of US air bombardments and other related operations is a real and pressing concern.
Another question of concern is why the US media, omnipresent in Iraq since the 2003 invasion, has not capitalised on its high standards of professionalism to gather accurate data about the human tragedy in Iraq.
The Associated Press kept a record for the period from 28 April 2005 to 30 September 2010 listing some 49,416 deaths.
Yet, even more disturbing than these US failures has been the failure by successive Iraqi governments to establish an efficient process of data collection to register the deaths of Iraqi citizens and to compensate their families.
Failure to collect data and dodgy statistics are not the only problems. There is also the problem of how to count deaths that are directly related to the war and occupation, separating them from deaths as a result of violence in the country.
Absent from the debate is any explanation of the humanitarian crisis that has struck Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion, including increasing poverty, unemployment, the deterioration of health services and the destruction of the country’s ecological system.
Statistics such as those released by the US military have also largely ignored Iraqi fatalities caused by a lack of clean drinking water and a breakdown in utilities.
Humanitarian agencies like the International Committee of the Red Cross have warned that the country’s healthcare facilities face grave shortages of staff and supplies, with the water, sewage and electricity infrastructure being in critical condition.
Rates of cancer, leukemia and brain tumours, widely believed to have been caused by US weaponry, have been on the rise, some research suggesting that they rival those reported among survivors of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The US military’s report on the death toll in Iraq comes at a time when US President Barack Obama has reached his lowest ratings in US opinion polls ahead of crucial mid-term elections next month.
The release of the statistics while Obama embarks on a campaign to drum up support for Democratic Party candidates cannot be a coincidence.
By publishing a limited number of casualties in Iraq, the Obama administration may be hoping that it can go ahead with its policy of "turning the page" in Iraq, ending the US military presence in the country by the end of next year.
Exiting from Iraq would benefit the Democratic Party, whose president vowed to end the legacy of the Republican Party and its president in Iraq.
If all goes to plan, Iraq will no longer be front-page news in America, as US soldiers pack up to leave in order to help Democrats achieve some sort of hoped-for victory in next month’s elections.
However, the very day this article was sent to print, a spate of bomb attacks across Iraq killed and wounded many people, serving as proof that the threat of death remains a part of daily life in the country.
If Albright’s idea that the price paid by Iraqi civilians for US policy "is worth it" can serve as any sort of reminder in this sad chapter of Iraq’s history, then it should be that the US-led invasion has turned into a humanitarian tragedy, as well as an American national predicament.