Iraq's deadly numbers game
BAGHDAD — There are few things Lt. Gen. Pete Chiarelli and the founders of Iraq Body Count agree on except this: In daily bombings and killings in Iraq, it is often impossible to determine who was responsible, and why.
“Today, everything that happens in Iraq is [supposedly] sectarian,” Chiarelli, the second- highest ranking general in Iraq, said last week. But some of those attacks were undoubtedly the work of al-Qaida in Iraq, he said. At the same time, “there’s a certain proportion that’s chalked up to insurgents that in reality are pure, unadulterated crime.”
Iraq Body Count — the anti-war organization whose Web site count of media-reported deaths in the country since 2003 is viewed as the most accurate and has been cited by President Bush — said much the same thing in a Thursday press release.
But the general and the anti- war organization draw vastly different conclusions.
Chiarelli, commander of Multi- National Corps-Iraq, is doing his best to build “trust and confidence” in the Iraqi people in what he hopes will become their own, legitimate, functioning government.
The task is “very, very difficult,” and “very, very complicated,” Chiarelli said. But, he said, “We’re much further along than you ever thought.”
Iraq Body Count says civilian deaths have increased each year since the U.S. invasion — from an average of 20 a day in 2003, to 31 daily in 2004, to between 36 and 40 in the year ending March 1 of this year.
“Today’s figures are an indictment of three years of occupation, which continues to make the lives of ordinary Iraqis worse, not better,” Iraq Body Count co-founder John Sloboda said in the press release. “Talk of civil war is a convenient way for the U.S. and Iraqi authorities to mask the real and continuing core of this conflict, which is between an incompetent and brutal occupying power on the one hand and a nationalist insurgency fuelled by grief, anger, and humiliation on the other.”
In an interview at his Camp Victory headquarters, Chiarelli said that the U.S. should stay in Iraq “long enough so that the government can gain legitimacy in the eyes of the people.”
“If the American people remained committed to this operation at whatever troop levels are necessary, then I think we have a very good opportunity to create a democratic Iraq,” he said.
The opposing views reflect a larger debate. There is a large divide between how people view whether progress is being made in Iraq, whether it’s at a stalemate, or if the country is on a downward spiral into a war of all against all.
But how to measure that remains contested. Even the number of deaths following the Feb. 22 Golden Mosque bombing in Samarra remains murky amid reports of politically motivated threats and influence. The Washington Post reported that Baghdad morgue officials counted more than 1,000 deaths. The Iraqi Health Ministry pegs it at 379, a figure the U.S. government supports.
Most reports referring to the matter now just say “hundreds” were killed.
Likewise, the number of “attacks” in Iraq is difficult to pin down, partly because the definition of attacks has varied.
“There haven’t been common definitions of these things,” Chiarelli said. “I’ve decided the only way to decide if violence is really going down is to concentrate on roadside bombs and indirect fire. Let’s really look at those, and we can really get a feel for whether it’s improving or not.”
From December through the beginning of March, weekly indirect-fire attacks have dipped far below 100, then risen past it, then dipped and risen again, according to Multi-National Corps-Iraq’s count. More than 300 roadside bombs were laid every week except one, but about half were discovered and disposed of.
Although it seems indisputable that, whatever attacks consist of, they tend to rise and fall, they’ve hampered reconstruction efforts and cost many lives. Iraq Body Count is thought to have the best numbers on civilian deaths, although because the figures are based mostly on media reports and not all killings are reported, they’re thought to be low. There were 12,617 civilian deaths in the third year of the occupation, according to the organization. Of those, 370 civilians were killed by U.S.-led forces and 2,231 were killed by insurgents. Who’s responsible for the remaining 10,000 is unknown.
Chiarelli says the level of violence and number of killings are “terrible, horrible.” But like other high-ranking U.S. military officials, he says to look only at that is to miss the larger picture, even if it remains blurry and unfinished.
“You can only see big things in Iraq,” Chiarelli said. “The optimism of the people.”