Counting the Civilian Casualties in Iraq
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MARGARET WARNER: Despite U.S. assurances that it was going to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties during the war, Iraqi civilians were killed. Some were hit from the sky by U.S. bombs and Iraqi anti-aircraft fire; others were caught in combat on the ground. But unlike the Vietnam War, when the U.S. Military put out daily tallies of the number of enemy killed, Defense Department officials in the Iraq war said they were not keeping track of any Iraqi casualties, military or civilian.
BRIG. GENERAL VINCENT BROOKS: The number of casualties is a figure that can never be completely well-determined. We can never guarantee that there would be civilians that are completely free from the hazards of battle in and around that area.
MARGARET WARNER: Iraqi officials said they were keeping a count, and they briefed reporters daily on the figures.
MOHAMMED SAEED AL-SAHHAF: Simply, frankly, in all sincerity, they are attacking, bombarding civilian quarters. They are killing innocent people.
MARGARET WARNER: The last official Iraqi tally of nearly 1,200 civilians killed came on April 6, as U.S. troops were closing in on Baghdad. Since the war ended, several independent groups have conducted their own estimates: Among them, the Associated Press, which counted Iraqi deaths for one month between the start of the war, on March 20, and April 20. Their assessment: At least 3,240 Iraqi civilians were killed.
MARGARET WARNER: For more on the issue of civilian casualties in this and other wars, we get three perspectives. Niko Price is correspondent at large for the associated press. He headed the AP reporting team that conducted the assessment of civilian deaths in Iraq. Alex Roland is a professor of military history and of the history of technology at Duke University. He served with the marine medical battalion in the Vietnam War. And retired Air Force Colonel Sam Gardiner, military operations and planning, and is a long-time consultant to the Defense Department. Welcome to you all. Niko Price, tell us how the Associated Press arrived at this count of 3,240 civilian deaths in this one-month period.
NIKO PRICE: Well, it’s based largely on hospital records. But it… that number accounts for only the cases in which hospitals that we visited had good documentation on those deaths. The real number is certainly much higher than that, because some hospitals didn’t have good documentation, and some of the dead weren’t taken to hospitals.
MARGARET WARNER: Tell us a little more about the documentation we required. I gather you did eliminate whole categories of people, what, if the hospital didn’t know whether they were truly civilians?
NIKO PRICE: Correct. For example, in Basra, Iraq’s second largest city, the three main hospitals had a count of 431 dead. They said that 85 percent of those were civilians, but they couldn’t prove on a case-by-case basis that they were. So we didn’t include any numbers from Basra in our count. In general, hospitals would have ledgers recording names of people to which they issued death certificates, and we would go off of those ledgers.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, you also only, I think, included about half the hospitals in Iraq. What kind of coverage did you get from those hospitals? In other words, how many did you think… well, just speculate, but just tell us about the coverage you got from that.
NIKO PRICE: Sure. The hospitals that we covered included almost all of the large ones. The ones that we didn’t visit were mostly in remote areas that were either dangerous or just too far to get to.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, you also said that a lot of dead weren’t taken to hospitals. Explain that.
NIKO PRICE: Well, correct. Some families would bury their dead without going to the hospitals to get death certificates. In some cases, bodies were destroyed by the bombs that killed them. And in those cases, they wouldn’t be brought to hospitals either.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, there are, as we noted in the setup piece, other independent groups that have been doing their own assessment. There’s one called Iraqbodycount.net out of Britain. And they, for instance, went and got eyewitness accounts. Why did the AP choose to just stick with hospital records, what was behind the methodology?
NIKO PRICE: The difficulty in trying to combine hospital records, grave sites, witness accounts, is that it’s almost impossible to determine that you’re not counting the same person twice. You know, a witness could tell you about a certain death; that same person could be registered at a hospital and at a graveyard. So really, for the sake of consistency, we needed to just concentrate on one of those, and we felt that hospital records were the most accurate.
MARGARET WARNER: Sam Gardiner, the Defense Department said that 70 percent of the bombs used in this conflict, and missiles, were precision guided by satellite or laser. Given that, how do you explain the number of casualties?
COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: Well… let me just add one thing. I think, Margaret, not only were they precision guided, but they were targeted with precision. In other words, they looked for a place where there would be smaller casualties. But– and that’s the reason there are casualties– if you look at where the civilian casualties took place mostly, it is in the cities where there was heavy ground fighting. Most of what we heard from the Pentagon, during and before, was about how careful we were being with the bombs dropped by the Air Force. But Nasiriyah, the other places where there was ground fight, Basra, is where you find the jumps in civilian casualties. But also in Baghdad, there were… the numbers reports is probably in the neighborhood of 2,500 casualties in Baghdad; probably a large portion associated with the bombing.
MARGARET WARNER: Is it also hard to know how many of the casualties were caused by direct American fire versus Iraqi fire?
COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: It is probably, but I… there was a discussion… there were two major incidences in Baghdad. There was one at a marketplace, and another in actually another marketplace, in which there was some discussion at the time whether or not they were American or not. We haven’t been told by the Pentagon exactly what their studies have found, but they were probably American. I don’t think that there were, you know, that of that 100… 2,500, a lot of them would be because of Iraqi action. I think American combat forces probably did it.
MARGARET WARNER: And there were instances where the U.S. did aim either bombs or ground fire at places that there were civilians, were there not?
COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: Yes, yes. Despite the up-front setup that we weren’t going to do it, on a couple of occasions, the decision was made clearly to attack civilian areas. The most famous was on the 9th of April, when the restaurant, and where we thought the leadership was, twenty-eight people from the leadership. And it turns out probably three families were killed, and we haven’t heard whether or not any of the leadership was there at all. Other instances when we were at Chemical Ali, the same thing, the neighborhood was deliberately attacked and the assumption was that… in the military logic, if military people are using civilian facilities, then it’s a legitimate target.
MARGARET WARNER: And they’re using it… using them for human shields essentially…
COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: Yes.
MARGARET WARNER: …Or civilian shields.
COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: Yes.
MARGARET WARNER: Professor Roland, if we take this number, 3,240, even accepting what Mr. Price says, that it’s probably quite low, is this high, or how does it stack up by historical standards?
ALEX ROLAND: That’s a good question. We don’t have good historical data on civilian casualties from wars, for the simple reason that the victors get to count at the end, and very seldom is it in the interest of the victors to count up the civilian casualties that, by and large, they have inflicted. We’ve also never had a war quite like this; that is the combination of the political circumstance and the military circumstance in Iraq, our use of precision weapons and our rules of engagement on the ground. So, it’s hard to compare. My personal sense is this is probably higher than the Defense Department would have wanted. And it begs the question of why, with all our obvious efforts to avoid civilian casualties, we’re still getting numbers in the thousands. There are three possibilities. One is that the intelligence for the precision-guided munitions might not be accurate. One is that the munitions themselves aren’t working. And the third one, that the colonel alluded to, is that our rules of engagement for the ground forces might be bringing on more civilian casualties than we would want.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, go back to the historical examples, though, in terms of coming up with some kind of count, if we look at World War II or conflicts since then. I mean, were there times in which it was political on both sides, either whether they talked about the casualties or not, or where they set the casualty numbers?
ALEX ROLAND: Yes, of course. If you take the Russo-German war, which was the largest war within World War II, that entailed an enormous amount of nationalistic and ethnic hostility between the Russians and the Germans, and there were horrors on both sides of that war, horrors inflicted upon the civilian population. Nor was the United States immune to this problem during World War II, because, of course, we and the British were engaged in strategic bombing against Germany, and then, of course, we were engaged in strategic bombing against Japan. And at the outset of the war, we foreswore bombing civilian populations, but our bombing technology proved inadequate. And by the end of the war, we were clearly bombing cities and accepting the enormous civilian casualties involved.
MARGARET WARNER: Sam Gardiner, talk about the Vietnam War. Now, there the U.S. did give as they called “enemy body counts,” so they didn’t distinguish between civilian and military.
COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: Well, the idea was primarily that they would be military, but they were indistinguishable on the battlefield. But it’s interesting, in this war, General Franks says, “We don’t do body counts”– still hanging over from Vietnam. The Vietnam thing, people were looking for a way to measure success on the battlefield. And one of the answers was, “Well, we’ll tell people how many we’ve killed, then they can measure our success by doing that.” Well, the obvious problem became as we were giving body counts that continued to go up, but it looked like we were not doing well. So, the military rejected the body count. And I think that sort of, to pick up on the point, is what we had in Gulf II was the two tensions. One of them is we announced that we weren’t going to kill civilians, which created a great deal of tension for us. And then the reality surfaced in which there were civilian casualties. So, we had — we still have the tension now. And it’s going to probably continue as people continue to raise this story and the issue of how many were killed during the war.
MARGARET WARNER: Now…
ALEX ROLAND: If I can intervene, I’d like to add I agree with what the colonel is saying, and I think it poses a problem for the Department of Defense, because ideally, they would want to gather more information about how these civilian casualties were incurred, and get their own reliable count as a way of adjusting their own doctrine. But their lawyers are probably telling them, “You don’t want to do that study, you don’t want to do a firm count what was the civilian casualties were, because it opens you up to all kinds of accusations and claims.”
MARGARET WARNER: And a quick question to you, Professor. Did, for instance, after World War II, did the U.S., Britain, and Russia, make any attempt to assess the number of German civilians killed?
ALEX ROLAND: No. There might have been. There was an extensive survey on the part of the United States, called the Strategic Bombing Survey, which attempted– we did the same thing in Japan– attempted to evaluate the effectiveness of strategic bombing, and part of that entailed the civilians who were killed. But there wasn’t as much attention paid to that issue. It’s just too sensitive.
COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: They said between 250,000 and 350,000 Germans by air bombing. So, it was a very broad estimate. The real concern was about morale, and not about casualties.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, if, Sam Gardiner, if the Pentagon did want to do the kind of assessment that the professor just mentioned, because we control the territory, it is possible, is it not, as opposed to say in the first Iraq war?
COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: Yes, yes, yes, it is possible. One of the difficulties, however, was we haven’t mentioned, is the notion of indirect casualties. We just talked about the people that are killed directly. But most people that talk about civilian casualties point to the people that die because the water is bad after the war, and because children are playing with munitions. We have maybe had one hundred to one hundred fifty people die in Iraq because of unexploded munitions since the war supposedly ended.
MARGARET WARNER: And Professor, is there any obligation on the victor or the occupier to assess civilian casualties under international law?
ALEX ROLAND: No, there’s no legal obligation to do it. And most often it isn’t done, though I think it would be helpful in this case, because it might allow us to evaluate. We have a tension between wanting to minimize civilian casualties, but also not expose our own troops to risk. And those two are in tension with each other, and maybe we don’t have the tension right.
MARGARET WARNER: Niko Price, one final question to you. People of course have continued to die since April 20, and continue to– and American soldiers as well, of course. Is the AP planning to extend this survey or do another one?
NIKO PRICE: As we get further away from the war, it becomes much more difficult to distinguish between people killed in the war, between people killed by looting that occurred after the war, by score settling that has erupted. It’s much less cut and dry, and it’s much more difficult to come up with a clear number of people killed in the post-war environment.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, Niko Price, Alex Roland and Sam Gardiner, thank you all three.