'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Iraq Body Count: An Occupation Allegory 

It is difficult, if not impossible, to substantiate the number of Iraqi casualties resulting from the war and occupation as I posted in November 2005 and again in January 2006. One of the most perplexing aspects of the subject, as noted in my November post, has been the reflexive deference given to the work of Iraq Body Count, while the efforts of researchers at John Hopkins University, as published in the Lancet medical journal have been ignored, except for the occasional instance of ridicule. Of course, it couldn't be because the researchers at John Hopkins estimated significantly higher casualties than IBC, approximately three times as many.

Now, it seems that there are some people beginning to express concern as to whether calculations of IBC, and the underlying assumptions behind them, actually serve to conceal the brutality of the war and occupation. David Edwards of Media Lens has confronted this question in a two part series, Paved with Good Intentions, published at ZNet, posted here and here. Part 2 includes this troubling passage:

Earlier this month Media Lens searched the IBC database looking for incidents involving the mass killing of Iraqi civilians by 'coalition' forces between January-June 2005. We began by searching for incidents citing a minimum of 10 deaths and above. This seemed reasonable. After all, the New York Times reported in July 2003:

"Air commanders were required to obtain the approval of Defense Secretary Donald L. Rumsfeld if any planned airstrike was thought likely to result in deaths of more than 30 civilians. More than 50 such strikes were proposed, and all of them were approved." (Michael R. Gordon, 'After the War: Preliminaries; U.S. Air Raids in '02 Prepared for War in Iraq,' New York Times, July 20, 2003)

We found 58 incidents of 10+ deaths. Of these just one was attributed to a US airstrike:

"k785 08 Jan 2005 2:30 AM Aaytha, near Mosul suspected insurgent hideout, wrong house hit laser-guided bomb dropped by F-16 jet 14 [people killed]" (http://www.iraqbodycount.org/database/bodycount36.php?ts=1137413717)

Of the other 57 incidents listed, 25 were attributed to suicide bombers and a further 29 were attributed to insurgent actions targeting Iraqi government troops, government officials, religious groups, and so on. The few remaining cases described corpses shot at close range, bodies blindfolded and shot, and executed bodies that had been dumped.

In short, out of 58 incidents involving a minimum of 10 or more Iraqi civilian deaths just one was attributed to the 'coalition'. We then searched for incidents citing less than a minimum of 10 deaths involving 'coalition' airstrikes, helicopter gunfire and tank fire, we found three references in the six-month period we examined totalling 15 civilians killed:

"k815 16 Jan 2005 - Samarra civilian vehicle at checkpoint tank fire 4 [killed]" (http://www.iraqbodycount.org/database/bodycount35.php?ts=1137415170)

"k997 13 Mar 2005 - Mosul 'insurgents' firing on helicopter, civilians killed in return fire helicopter fire 3 [killed]" (http://www.iraqbodycount.org/database/bodycount30.php?ts=1137415112)

"k1357 19 May 2005 12:00 PM Mosul attack by gunmen on house of National Assembly member Fawwaz al-Jarba, US troops also involved gunfire, helicopter gunfire 8 [killed]" (http://www.iraqbodycount.net/database/bodycount21.php?ts=1137487725)

This struck us as frankly remarkable. In the December 2005 edition of the New Yorker, journalist Seymour Hersh reported a US Air Force press release indicating that, since the beginning of the conflict, the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing alone had dropped more than 500,000 tons of ordnance on Iraq.

Perhaps, such an outcome is not so surprising, when you consider the following:

In its report 'A dossier of civilian casualties 2003-2005', IBC noted that just three press agencies - Associated Press, Agence France Presse, and Reuters - provided one-third of all stories. Reliance on Western media is not deemed a problem, however, because they "are unlikely to suppress conservative estimates which can act as a corrective to inflated claims. . . .We have not made use of Arabic or other non English language sources, except where these have been published in English. The reasons are pragmatic. We consider fluency in the language of the published report to be a key requirement for accurate analysis, and English is the only language in which all team members are fluent. It is possible that our count has excluded some victims as a result."

Given such an admission, it is hard to understand how anyone could consider the efforts of IBC credible, and it is even more extraordinary that American and British media commonly cite figures from it without acknowledging this embarrassing disclaimer, while ignoring the results of the study published by the Lancet. As an aside, am I the only person who finds the IBC explanation for relying solely upon reports "published in English" unpersuasive? After all, why is it necessary for "all team members" to be fluent in the language of a published report? Is this just a roundabout way of avoiding an acknowledgement that none of the participants of IBC can read and speak Arabic? Or is it also a means of ensuring that most reports will originate from sources reflexively sympathetic to the cultural perspective of the occupying forces?

Perhaps, I am being too sarcastic about an enterprise that started with such good intentions. Even so, we should not hesitate to wonder whether IBC has been transformed into an endeavor that puts a human face on the occupation, highlighting killings by the resistance and suicide bombers, while lacking the motivation to document killings by occupation forces. As Sam Ramadani said today in the Guardian:

Admittedly, reports on the ground are difficult and dangerous. But while western media are not averse to revealing deceptions around the WMD scare and pre-war lies, occupier-generated news still takes pride of place, and anti-occupation Iraqi voices of all sects - particularly Shia clergy such as Ayatollahs Hassani, Baghdadi and Khalisi - are ignored.

A few months before US soldiers boasted of using white phosphorus, the BBC's Paul Wood defended his reporting from Falluja in the November 2004 siege, telling Medialens: "I repeat the point made by my editors, over weeks of total access to the military operation, at all levels: we did not see banned weapons being used ... or even discussed. We cannot therefore report their use." Doctors and refugees fleeing US bombardment talked of "chemical attacks" and people "melting to death". But for the BBC, eyewitness testimony from Iraqis is way down the pecking order of objectivity.

It would clearly be wrong to portray victims' claims as uncontested facts, but there is a duty to publish and investigate them. Had, for example, Iraqi families' claims been highlighted shortly after the occupation began, the world would not have waited over a year to learn of torture at US-run jails. It was not until US soldiers gleefully circulated sickening pictures of tortured Iraqis that the media paid attention.

As usual, our interest remains primarily focused upon the perils of participating in the occupation, and we continue to invest the participants with a credibility that is wholly undeserved.

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