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Civilian Casualties in Iraq

April 26, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: As fighting in Iraq intensified this month, U.S. news organizations often reported on the total number of Americans killed, but did not report as fully on the total number of Iraqi casualties, either civilians killed in the crossfire, insurgents fighting coalition forces or suicide bombers.

We get three views now on the issue of civilian casualties. Scott Lipscomb is an assistant researcher for Iraq Body Count, a group that tracks the numbers of Iraqi civilians killed. Peter Feaver is a professor of political science at Duke University and has written extensively about security issues. And New York Times reporter Jeffrey Gettleman spent the last three months in Iraq covering the war.

Scott Lipscomb, over the past month, we watched as battlefield casualties have spiked for American forces, a very high death toll for the month of April so far. Has there been a similar, an equivalent rise in the number of Iraqi civilian casualties?

SCOTT LIPSCOMB: There has certainly been a huge number of them in recent days. It has not been proportional to that of the U.S. Military, and the reason for that is because so many civilians have been killed along the way, just during the period of time prior to the May 1 “mission accomplished” announcement there were between 5,700 and 8,700 depending on what numbers you look at civilians killed. So the tragedy I think is that civilians in fact continue to be killed even at this stage of the occupation.

RAY SUAREZ: When you attempt to arrive at a number, what sources do you use, since the government’s in charge in that part of the world are not compiling civilian death tolls?

SCOTT LIPSCOMB: Although you remember the Ministry of Health in Iraq was compiling such a list until for some mysterious reasons the process was stopped. Basically what we are attempting to do at Iraq Body Count is to provide numbers in a way that is accessible and available to us, and that is to go to on line media sources and we are using media sources from all around the world, including Western media, including Asian media, including Middle Eastern media, and our attempt is to provide as accurate a count as possible of the civilian tragedies – sorry — civilian casualties as they’re reported in the news media. So the numbers you’re seeing in the Iraq Body Count counters on various Web sites around the world reflect those deaths that are reported in the media and only those deaths.

RAY SUAREZ: How do you know you’re not counting someone who was killed or a family that was killed in three different sources, two or three different times?

SCOTT LIPSCOMB: Exactly. In fact, the method is outlined very clearly on our Web site, let me briefly go over that. What we do is we scour the Internet for, using a variety of sources and we scour the Internet to find information about those deaths that occur. In order for us to ensure that we can find enough information that will allow us to distinguish between separate incidents and yet not make it prohibitively difficult for us to find the necessary information, we have limited down to five pieces of information, the absolutely essential pieces that we need to puzzle together and distinguish between separate incidents. The first is a date and a time. Sometimes the time is a time of day, as in afternoon or evening, rather than a specific time.

Also we need to know the location, where it occurred — preferably a neighborhood within a city, but at least a city where that incident occurred. Thirdly, the target, if that’s available, sometimes it is, sometimes it’s not available. The other is the number of individuals that were killed and the weapon used.

RAY SUAREZ: And I notice you have a range rather than a hard and fast number. Where does that stand right now in late April?

SCOTT LIPSCOMB: Exactly, I checked just behave I came to the studio, it may have gone up since then because this is updated in real time — currently, the total stands at 8,730 at the minimum, a very conservative estimate. At the upper end it’s 10,781 if I remember correctly — 871, I believe it is, but essentially what that attempts to do is to take into account the fact that various media sources are at times disagreeing about the number of deaths that have occurred and also there are times when a media report will come in and then later be updated so that we have a later accounting of the number of individuals that were killed after the fact.

Now, in the case of a later report, that would override previous reports, as long as we can find corroborating evidence. So the maximum report is the highest number of casualties reported in at least two media sources, usually it’s many more than that. The minimum would be the same as the maximum, except in the case that there was a lower figure presented in another account and then corroborated by a second account. So that allows us to maintain a total range in this inexact, inexact science that we’re trying to do. And the reason that we are doing this is because our governments have refused to take responsibility for this issue, and this is a way that we as Americans, as British citizens, can participate in this activity and attempt to bring accountability to our government.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Feaver, you’ve heard Scott Lipscomb describe how Iraq body count does it. Do you think they arrive at a useful number, a credible number?

PETER FEAVER: I think it’s useful for providing a way upper bound estimate. But if you look at the same group’s estimate for the Afghanistan War, using a similar method, their estimate came in three times higher than what most other estimates, including some very careful ones that were done. So I think what they do is not quite garbage in, garbage out. But what they do is they count reports that have incentives to exaggerate the number of civilian casualties and then use those as their baseline. So it’s useful for an upper bound estimate. It’s not very accurate for assessing the true human cost of the war, though.

RAY SUAREZ: Why do you say an incentive to exaggerate?

PETER FEAVER: Well, the most important thing to remember is that the U.S. coalition forces are trying to reduce civilian casualties and the insurgents are trying to increase civilian casualties. And people are — have an incentive to exaggerate the number of civilians killed as a way of exaggerating the costs that the U.S. has inflicted. And so when newspaper reporters go out and collect information, and they ask people how many people died, and they faithfully report that number, that number has, is almost certainly inflated upwards.

And another problem with the method is it treats as equally reliable Al Jazeera network, which is known to be exaggerating the civilian toll, with say the Washington Post, which might take a more circumspect approach, and this further assumes that Al Jazeera has already scrubbed all their numbers so anything reported by Al Jazeera is worth counting. And those assumptions, which are quite explicit and they are serious scholars in the sense that they make these assumptions explicit and accessible to the people on the Web site, but what they do is they tell us that what this project is doing is providing a way upper bound estimate.

RAY SUAREZ: Scott Lipscomb, do you take all your sources at equal face value, as the professor suggests?

SCOTT LIPSCOMB: Yes, we take the sources as equal. However there’s a vast difference in the way that we look at the actual reporting. As you know, as a journalist that when you read a report, you’re actually reading a secondary report and it’s really the primary sources that matter. And you’re going to get a different accounting from an eyewitness than you might get — as you might get from a doctor in a hospital where the bodies are taken after an incident. So what we attempt to do, and we really do this very carefully, our goal is accuracy over expediency.

We very carefully look at the original source of the information and we track that down. So from 15 different reports whether it’s Al Jazeera or Washington Post as Peter suggested or whatever media source, we track down which one has the primary source closest that would be able to determine what the exact precise number is, and we use those sources and give them added weight. So we do not weigh Western papers over Middle Eastern papers or any paper in the world over another. We focus on the primary source. I’d also like to clarify one misconception that arose in the previous response.

RAY SUAREZ: Quickly please.

SCOTT LIPSCOMB: Sure. That is the fact that we are not a continuation of the project in Afghanistan, in fact if you read the mission of that project, the — it’s a much more liberal counting scheme. Our corroboration requires that two at least two sources say the same number. That’s not the case for Afghanistan. So the work is based on that same method, but we have made it a more conservative estimate.

RAY SUAREZ: Jeffrey Gettleman, when you’re in a neighbor in an Iraqi city where there’s been a truck bombing or a fight of some sort, is it easy to find out how many people have actually died?

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: No, it’s probably one of the more difficult things we’re asked to do over there. There is an example that I was going to bring up that happened maybe two months ago, where there was a big hotel bombing in central Baghdad, not too far away from our bureau. And when we showed up to try to assess the damage, there was an American Army colonel there who said that 27 people had been killed. We ran a big story the next day, the number 27 might have even been in the headline.

And then one day later we were told that that number of dead had been revised to seven, which is a pretty different, a pretty different number, we may have even handled the story differently. So even being a primary source, even being somebody who goes out there to try to assess what exactly happened, you know, it’s confusing, and often the information that we’re given is not right and we later learn that.

RAY SUAREZ: Are there the conventional tools available to a reporter in any city in the United States when trying to find out how many people died in a fire or a car accident– death certificates, coroners’ reports, that kind of thing? Does that exist in Iraq yet?

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: There’s some of that, and we sometimes have even gone to morgues and seen the bodies ourselves. But it’s really hard to make sure you’re not double counting, that the ministry of health official who is giving you one number is including all the numbers the city and not taking some numbers from the police and other numbers from doctors, when those may be, you know, the same people who were killed. It’s really difficult. And I think even just the sense of record keeping there is so different that there may be an apartment building that’s completely collapsed but nobody really knows how many people live there.

RAY SUAREZ: And the Pentagon has made a point of saying that it is not keeping track, or not compiling totals, but is it monitoring the situation, monitoring the gradual accumulation of civilian deaths?

JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: I did a story on civilian casualties and got kind of a mixed message about this. The Pentagon officially says we do not keep track of civilian casualties, and they have a number reasons why. I think the biggest reason is the confusion that we’re talking about, that it’s very hard to arrive at a precise number of how many civilians are killed. So that’s why they say they don’t track civilian casualties.

But in my reporting, I talked to a number of commanders including some pretty high ranking generals who said, yes, after an incident where civilians have been killed we do what we call a battle damage assessment, in which we tabulate the number of enemy killed, the number of friendly forces killed and the number of civilians killed. And if there are situations where civilians have been killed at a checkpoint or in circumstances that might warrant an investigation, the Army looks into that, and at some level they’re keeping those numbers, they just haven’t aggregated them or released them to us.

RAY SUAREZ: Jeffrey Gettleman, Professor Feaver, Scott Lipscomb, thank you all.