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Study Finds Iraq Death Toll Higher Than Previous Estimates

October 11, 2006 at 6:20 PM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: Borzou Daragahi, welcome. Reporting coming out of Iraq, including your own, features pitched combat between American and Iraqi forces and armed opponents. Who’s fighting back?

BORZOU DARAGAHI, Los Angeles Times: Well, I mean, for some time now, you’ve had this ongoing insurgency. The Sunni-Arab resistance, as they call themselves, has been fighting both the U.S. troops and the Shiite and Kurdish-dominated Iraqi government.

It was very interesting, though. Yesterday, I was in a so-called insurgent stronghold in west Baghdad, and it seemed to me — and it seems to U.S. officials and Iraqi residents in this particular area, called Amiriyah — is that the sort of modified presence of U.S. troops in this area, in a sort of peacekeeping mode, rather than a combat mode, has managed to bring some measure of calm and stability to this once-troubled area.

RAY SUAREZ: Once areas are pacified, do they stay that way? Or do American troops and other forces have to return again and again?

BORZOU DARAGAHI: You know, I mean, that’s a really good point, and that’s — even some commanders, U.S. commanders on the ground, acknowledge quite openly that they don’t have enough troops to keep control over all of their areas. And they acknowledge that, yes, you know, we’ve got this area under control at the cost of leaving another area uncovered. And so it’s really a game of Whack-a-Mole.

Bush administration on Iraqi deaths

RAY SUAREZ: Today, during his news conference, the president cited increased casualties as a result of the increased operational tempo. U.S. troops are just fighting more, aren't they?

BORZOU DARAGAHI: Well, U.S. troops are just out there more. They're not confined to their bases as much as they were before. They're doing more presence patrols; they're showing themselves on the streets more. And, indeed, there is some suggestion they are engaging in more combat activity.

RAY SUAREZ: It's been a common place of statements from the Bush administration that, if commanders in Iraq asked for more troops, they'd get them. When you talk to forces in uniform on the ground there, do they think they need more troops?

BORZOU DARAGAHI: I think that they all say that. As a matter of fact, you know, you talk to someone who's in charge of a battalion. He says he wishes he had a brigade. You talk to someone in charge of a brigade; he wishes he had a division.

So there is that sentiment there. There's also an understanding that the U.S. Army is already overtaxed. There just simply aren't as many troops around to go around.

Death squad killings

RAY SUAREZ: Lately, reporting out of Iraq has featured large numbers of tortured and executed bodies turning up on the streets of cities, sometimes 10, 20, as much as 60. Who are these people? Is it possible to know?

BORZOU DARAGAHI: Well, there is some suggestion as to who the victims are. Primarily, they're ordinary Sunnis and Shiites abducted from their homes or taken off the streets. Maybe it's part of some tribal vendettas, as well, in rural parts of the country. They are often blindfolded, bound, tortured, often with drills or other kinds of household hardware, and then shot execution-style, dumped in the Tigris River or in some desolate lot somewhere.

RAY SUAREZ: What about the perpetrators? Are there any forces in Iraq claiming responsibility for this large number of killings?

BORZOU DARAGAHI: You know, it's civilian warfare, but it's really an undeclared civil war. There's really no one claiming responsibility for these kinds of killings. It's really subterranean, underground types of killing in the dead of night, and no one's really willing to show their hands.

New statistics

RAY SUAREZ: This comes at the same time as a new report from Johns Hopkins University and associated researchers are putting the number of civilian dead in the Iraq war at a much higher level than has ever been speculated about before. You've done some reporting on this subject; what did you make of those figures?

BORZOU DARAGAHI: Well, we think -- the Los Angeles Times thinks these numbers are too large, depending on the extensive research we've done. Earlier this year, around June, the report was published at least in June, but the reporting was done over weeks earlier. We went to morgues, cemeteries, hospitals, health officials, and we gathered as many statistics as we could on the actual dead bodies, and the number we came up with around June was about at least 50,000.

And that kind of jibed with some of the news report that were out there, the accumulation of news reports, in terms of the numbers kill. The U.N. says that there's about 3,000 a month being killed; that also fits in with our numbers and with morgue numbers. This number of 600,000 or more killed since the beginning of the war, it's way off our charts.

RAY SUAREZ: What about the role of the central government in keeping these kinds of numbers? Are morgues, the ministry of health, hospitals, the central government reliable sources of information?

BORZOU DARAGAHI: I think that ostensibly, on the surface, they're probably not reliable sources, but, you know, it's our job as journalists to find that one honest guy at the health ministry or at the morgue who's going to give us the real numbers, and, you know, we try to do that.

RAY SUAREZ: Borzou Daragahi of the Los Angeles Times, thanks for being with us.

BORZOU DARAGAHI: It's been a pleasure. Thank you.