Iraqi officials working to standardize body counts
September 4, 2010
BAGHDAD — The Iraqi government has started releasing civilian and military casualty figures to standardize body counts and, they hope, control leaks about the numbers killed or wounded in bombings and attacks throughout the country.
The accounting used to be a mix of reports from Iraqi security forces, U.S. intelligence, media reports and tracking by iCasualties.org, according to Lt. Gen. Robert Cone, deputy commander for operations for U.S. Forces-Iraq.
Usually, the numbers put out by the U.S. and Iraqi military tracked closely with the media’s, Cone said in an interview Tuesday in his office at Al Faw Palace. But July’s numbers differed greatly — the media reported about 240 more wounded than tracked by either military, he said.
The fear, Cone said, was that numbers were leaked from someone inside the Ministry of Interior to boost the statistics, possibly to influence Iraqis frustrated with the deadlocked government.
“Our concern is we don’t want this politicized,” Cone said. “We want the facts because it helps people make decisions. It helps us make decisions in terms of understanding the environment we’re in.”
Underreporting is also a problem.
Individual Iraqi commanders can be reluctant to acknowledge violence emanating from their sector for fear of reprisal or looking weak.
“There is a tendency by some units to not be completely honest in terms of their reports,” said Brig. Gen. Ralph Baker, a deputy commander for U.S. Division-Center. The Iraqis’ desire to save face, rather than own up to the truth, can have unintended consequences, he added.
Baker said he saw that play out during elections. Before the March 7 voting, an Iraqi commander Baker was working with had the habit of taking news about bombs in his sector badly, criticizing his unit commanders for allowing violence in his area.
On election day, Baker heard explosions. Iraqi military on the ground reported mortar explosions — a weapon launched from another unit’s sector, but U.S. intelligence revealed the explosions were homemade bombs made from plastic drink bottles.
When the Iraqi commander asked Baker for help in identifying the launch sites, Baker showed him the U.S. evidence.
“Sadie, it’s not mortars,” Baker said to the commander, using an Arabic term of respect. “They are reporting mortars because when they report IEDs, they get in trouble with you. Now, you don’t know what to believe.”
In early August, a senior Iraqi military intelligence officer said he was feeling political pressure from his higher command to underreport violence. The officer did not offer any examples of violent acts that didn’t make official reports.
Cone said he did not believe underreporting was happening, but said the Iraqi official release of statistics — which began this month with a press release about August stats — is meant to reduce any such possibility.
It’s hard to know, ultimately, how accurate this new official count will be. Cone says he’s confident in the reports he sees from the prime minister’s National Operations Center, the key source he uses at his command, which has overwatch of the six U.S. advise-and-assist brigades throughout Iraq.
Improving the accuracy of these reports is one of the many things U.S. officers will work on with Iraqi midlevel military officials.
“I do think there are probably things we are not being shown because there are commanders out there that probably don’t want to let their higher headquarters find out about something,” Baker said.
But Baker also said he thinks that has become the exception, not the rule.
“We’re pretty comfortable and confident with the statistics that we’re collecting in Baghdad,” Baker said. “Are they as accurate and perfect as they were when we had six or seven U.S. brigades here? Probably not.”