Counting bodies in Iraq has become quite the fashion these days. Most major news organizations, from CNN to the New York Times, keep an up-to-the-minute running total of the number of U.S. troops killed there. Critics note that if demoralization of the war effort is not the key motive then it is certainly odd that the number of dead terrorists is so rarely, if ever, provided as well.
Dead Iraqis are extremely popular with anti-war groups, particularly IraqBodyCount (IBC), which meticulously compiles a database of deadly incidents in Iraq based on news and morgue reports. The organization's "counter" of civilian casualties was once found on the sidebar of most anti-war blogs -- before bloggers were seduced by the wildly insane Lancet survey estimates, which exceed IBC's numbers by a factor of 10.
To its credit, IBC relies on actual news reports, morgue and hospital statistics. Although not as popular with the anti-war Left as it once was, the organization gained some measure of general credibility by taking the Lancet to task for shoddy research practices. (Even the Lancet has now been outdone by a recent ORB survey which states that 1 out of every 20 Iraqis have been killed in the last four and a half years).
Of course, no one seemed at all concerned about mortality statistics back in the Saddam era, when they were climbing at a faster rate. The government executions and militia massacres were private affairs then, with the victims surreptitiously disposed of in unmarked mass graves well away from media attention.
It was not until the Americans became involved in Iraq that a sudden interest in dead Iraqis developed, along with the hope that their condition could be blamed on America itself. It was in those heady days of ground combat operations and rumored cluster bomb attacks on helpless neighborhoods that IBC began keeping track of civilian deaths caused by "US-led Coalition forces."
Unfortunately for IBC, major combat operations came to an end after a few months and the effort turned toward establishing a democratic government. Iraqis were no longer dying from war, but from the efforts of Islamic terrorists, who showed increasing disregard for the future of the country and the welfare of its citizens.
IBC had a decision to make. Would it count the victims of terror as victims of terror, or would it continue to call them "war" casualties of the original US-led operation when, in fact, Americans were spilling their own blood to protect Iraqis?
IBC decided to blame Americans for the very sectarian violence that their soldiers are trying to stop, in a shameful leap of logic that actually perpetuates the bloody cycle. Radical groups like al-Qaeda recruit young Muslims by convincing them that Iraqi civilians are under attack by the American forces in Iraq. It is this terror pipeline of suicide bombers and other architects of violence which (ironically enough) constitutes the only real threat to Iraqi security and self-reliance.
The grain of truth in the propaganda is that a number of Iraqi civilians do die each year from the collateral damage of American bombs and bullets intended for terrorists. The Arab and Muslim media do an impressive job of exaggerating the number of victims by providing inordinate attention to the portion of the violence to which Americans are held responsible. As a result, the Arab street opposes "U.S. policy in Iraq" and talks as if the Americans are largely behind the 75,000 or so civilian deaths that are reported by IBC and various news agencies.
But this isn't true. The percentage of Iraqi civilian deaths killed by collateral damage from American attacks is currently running between 1 and 2% of the overall number. This means that the vast majority of civilians killed are dying at the hands of Islamic terrorists recruited to "save" their fellow Muslims from the "occupation."
This number isn't easy to find -- even in IBC's database. Despite recording such precise details as the time of day that an attack occurred and the demographic information of the victims, IBC does not keep track of the perpetrators. This information can only be gleaned by manually analyzing each incident, which is what my own website, TheReligionofPeace.com (TROP), did in February of 2007.
A few months after TROP posted its informal findings (that just over 1% of Iraqis were dying from American collateral damage, according to IraqBodyCount's own database) IBC increased its estimate of overall civilian deaths in 2006 by 11% and its estimate of those caused by coalition troops by a whopping 38%!
Although curious about these convenient new numbers, TROP opted not to reanalyze the new data, but to instead keep a close eye on the IBC list of 2007 incidents, particularly after the entire first half of the year was posted in August. An analysis of this data reveals the somewhat duplicitous methods that IBC employs to exaggerate US-related violence, while minimizing the role of the terrorists.
First, the facts. According to IBC, approximately 12,142 Iraqi civilians died in 2294 "incidents" in the first half of 2007. Of these, Americans were held directly responsible for 298 deaths, or about 1 in 40 (as we shall see, however, this number is highly questionable). 122 of these occurred in air strikes (meaning missiles or dropped bombs) while the remainder were mostly from helicopter or ground fire. By IBC's admission, the parties responsible for at least 42 of these 298 deaths are ambiguous, often meaning that they were civilians caught in crossfire.
At first glance, it would appear that civilians are dying from American weapons at a rate that is a little over twice that of the TROP study from the year before. But as these incidents were analyzed, certain trends were discovered that call into question the integrity with which IBC compiles and presents its data.
In the first place, the journalistic standards for identifying US-related incidents are considerably lower. In fact, US incidents were about twice as likely to rely on one of two articles from the Washington Post that are identified as "WP 06 Jul (MoH)" and "WP 04 Apr (MoH)." A casual observer might assume that these are listings of individual incidents published by the Washington Post, since the articles are listed as an independent source of confirmation for 30% of US-related events.
However, these articles are actually just a few paragraphs each that present high-level mortality statistics by month according to unpublished Ministry of Health statistics. In fact, the focus of both stories is the unidentified victims of sectarian violence. Neither of these articles is a legitimate source for confirming the occurrence of any individual incident, much less whether or not the Americans were involved.
IBC was gracious in responding to an inquiry about this and maintained that they "use this general source as corroboration for single-sourced incidents of the appropriate type and timescale, making our usual adjustments to avoid double-counting etc." Although this may shore up the estimate of Iraqis killed over a long period of time by the violence, it seems completely inappropriate (and outright deceptive) to list either of these two articles as itemized confirmation of individual incidents.
Unfortunately, IBC uses this dubious technique to "confirm" one out of every three incidents that it blamed on the Americans, comprising 24% of the US-related casualties on its 2007 list. By contrast, IBC was far less inclined to rely on the generic Washington Post articles for non-US related events, which explains why those confirmed in this manner comprise a mere 7% of those killed by terrorists.
Fully 80% of the time, the generic Post articles are used to artificially support US-related incidents that are only reported by one member of the local Iraqi press (usually the National Iraqi News Agency or the Voice of Iraq radio station). This means that about 1 out of 4 incidents attributed by IBC to American bombs and bullets relied solely on a single local news account that was rejected by more established media organizations.
The most reputable international news agencies used by IBC are Reuters, CNN, the New York Times and the Associated Press. They were relied on for 56% of the non-US related incidents, but used in only 29% of cases involving the US military.
The immediate implications of using far less dependable sources for one side of the equation are skewed numbers and the inclusion of questionable incidents. This is because the local news agencies in Iraq are more apt to print news based on word of mouth or rumor.
Not surprisingly, several such incidents on IBC's list simply could not be verified by any reputable source. These include a January 11th incident in which US forces supposedly opened fire "randomly" on the people around them, and a shooting the next day of a family of four in their car.
Could it be that anti-US sentiment generates manufactured news events or distorts the details of real events?
As a case in point, consider that IBC is reporting that a house was hit by a US air strike in Haditha on January 24th, resulting in the deaths of twelve civilians. That this is based on a single local report by the National Iraqi News Agency makes it extremely suspicious under the circumstances.
Anti-US sentiment was running quite high in the Haditha area at the time over the alleged "massacre" of civilians by the American military. It seems highly unlikely that the tragic death of a dozen civilians sitting in their home, if it had happened, would not have generated enormous outrage and been picked up by the international press, which was also focused on the area at the time.
Isn't it more probable that the Haditha incident was fabricated, or that the victims may have died from a bombing by local extremists, which was then briefly blamed on the Americans by a frustrated bystander?
But with IBC, the Americans never get the benefit of the doubt. On April 7th, for example, the U.S. military insisted that it had visual confirmation that one hostile was killed in an air strike in Diwaniya. IBC instead relied on other reports that four civilians were killed by "tank fire."
On March 30th, IBC reported that 20 Iraqi "civilians" were killed in an American air strike on Sadr City during a firefight, even though the U.S. denies that it ordered a strike. IBC apparently relied on busy morgue officials to determine (perhaps psychically) whether victims were killed by debris from a missile or debris from an errant mortar fired by militias.
IBC also appears to over-represent civilians among the casualties of US-related incidents. For example, the organization reports that on January 1st, six "civilians" were killed when Americans fired into an al-Qaeda safehouse. Interestingly, this includes two guards and an "unknown male." It is unclear what qualifies the male occupants and guards of a terrorist safehouse as non-combatants.
Nearly 45 civilian deaths are laid at the feet of Americans following a February 8th air strike on four houses thought to have been sheltering terrorists in Amiriyah. However, a careful reading of news reports yields plenty of accusations, but little follow-up evidence that these were all civilians.
According to IBC itself, only two children were among the dead, as well as two women and two "elderly," which leaves 39 others who are presumably fighting-age men. But in a country in which nearly half the population is under the age of 18, how is it that an air strike on four ordinary residences kills just two children, while 85% of the casualties are from a demographic that happens to contribute more than 95% of all terrorists, but just 17% of the general population?
This is not the only example on the list in which the boundaries of credulity are stretched considerably to accommodate the "civilian" label. IBC relies on any report that includes any eyewitness claiming that civilian casualties resulted from a US action, even though civilians are never the intended targets of the Americans but of the terrorists -- whom the Americans are trying to stop.
To exaggerate the negative impact of American actions, IBC plays word games in its incidents database, particularly with regard to the discretionary personalization of victims and attackers.
With regard to victims, IBC reports that a "child" or "children" were the actual targets of an attack 5 out of 81 times when the Americans were involved (even though they are not the real targets of anti-terror operations). A "child" or "children" is described as the target in only 11 out of the 2213 deadly incidents that did not involve Americans, despite the hundreds of indiscriminate truck bombings and suicide attacks on marketplaces and urban sidewalks in which thousands of women and children were deliberately murdered by Islamic terrorists.
Although twelve times more likely to personalize the victims of attacks involving Americans, IBC is also twenty-five times more likely to depersonalize descriptions of non-Coalition attacks. Victims of terrorism are said to have been killed by disembodied 'bombs,' 'explosions,' and 'gunfire' in all but 49 out of 2213 cases, while fully half of the US-related incidents are blamed on 'US troops,' 'US soldiers,' or 'US forces.'
This objectification is by design, of course. So much so that it is almost comical in places. In at least two instances, for example, Iraqis are said to have been killed by a "suicide truck."
Shiites are mentioned as the perpetrators of violence only once. The Sunnis never. And al-Qaeda, which not only stages dozens of spectacular suicide bombings each year, but deliberately triggered a devastating holy war by attacking Shiites and their mosques, is given a complete free pass by IraqBodyCount. They are never once mentioned as the party responsible for the many deadly attacks that they directly coordinate, nor are they credited with the residual violence intentionally spawned.
Despite the undeniable prejudice working against the Americans, if we start with the number that IBC provides for casualties of US related incidents for the first half of 2007, cull out the three most dubious entries (such as the Haditha air strike that wasn't), and give responsibility to the terrorists for half the victims of crossfire and other ambiguous incidents, we arrive at a figure of 199 (or 1 in 60). Of these, only 44 deaths are from air strikes.
How many of these 199 victims are truly civilian or even truly dead (given the tendency of IBC to rely disproportionately on single "word-of-mouth" sources for US-related incidents) probably isn't possible to determine. It may very well be that the actual number of civilians killed is much closer to 120, which would be consistent with the conclusions of the earlier TROP study.
Still, given the massive capability of American firepower and the complete disregard for civilian casualties exhibited by an enemy that does what it can to blend in with the local population, it is plainly evident that the Americans are taking extraordinary measures to protect innocent Iraqis from collateral damage. If this is an "occupation," then it may be the first in history in which an army takes three times the casualties that civilians on the ground do from collateral damage.
However, IBC is undeterred by the low number of casualties from US action, and insists that Americans be faulted for all of the violence.
When it conspicuously revised its number of 2006 Coalition-caused victims sharply upward earlier this year, IBC suggested that even if the new figure "seems insignificant in light of the overall total, consider for a moment what it would mean if in your country there were, on average, three incidents a week in which a foreign army killed civilians, including the killing of a 5-yr-old girl and entire families with their children. Would this army be a stabilising influence?"
Here is the glaring inconsistency: If IBC truly believes that collateral damage from foreign troops propels the "insurgency," then why does the organization misrepresent and exaggerate these casualties? Why does IBC employ double standards and deceptive language to embellish the number of civilians who are dying from US-related incidents when doing so needlessly fuels the violence?
Beneath the public moralizing, it appears that anti-war groups have an underlying political agenda that is not always in line with their purported motives. Although operating under the cover of compassion, the success and welfare of the Iraqi people is of secondary concern to America's failure.
Reprehensible as well is the sanctimonious posturing of much of the Islamic world outside of Iraq, which demonizes America and her allies for the problems on the ground - even as its only contribution to Iraqi progress is the very Mujahideen who thwart it.
But this is what happens when moral superiority becomes an end unto itself. Having problems to blame on America becomes more important than resolving them, even if it means sacrificing Iraqis to the god of anti-American bigotry.
By Glen Reinsford