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Quick and Dirty

The Numbers Don’t Add Up

By Gadi Dechter | Posted 12/29/2004

Civilian casualties in Iraq since the end of major combat operations are caused “primarily” by insurgents, not coalition forces and Iraqi police, says U.S. Rep. Ben Cardin, D-3rd, contradicting recent reports by the Iraqi government.

“It’s clear to me that there’s been a very, very high toll of civilian casualties, primarily as a result of the activities of insurgents,” Cardin told reporters at a Dec. 19 press conference in his Roland Park district office. The congressman said he received the information from U.S. and Iraqi government officials while part of a congressional delegation to Baghdad two weeks ago.

Cardin’s account differs from conclusions drawn by the Iraqi Health Ministry, which began compiling casualty statistics on April 5. Between that date and Sept. 19, according to ministry figures first published by Knight Ridder, about two-thirds of the 3,487 Iraqi deaths confirmed by area hospitals were caused by multinational forces and police, with the remainder attributed to insurgent attacks. The ministry believes most of the dead accounted for in its report were civilians, Knight Ridder reported.

President George W. Bush announced an end to major combat operations in Iraq on May 2.

Cardin, who was opposed to the invasion of Iraq, didn’t specify the exact source of his information, and says that he hasn’t been given firm civilian casualty figures, though he has requested them. “We don’t have specific numbers, but I can tell you it’s high,” he said at the press conference. “It’s very high.”

In an interview a week earlier, Cardin told City Paper that he had once been given a “range number” of Iraqi civilian casualties, but couldn’t recall what the number was or whether the information was classified (Q&A, Dec. 15).

The congressman was on vacation last week but issued a clarifying statement through his district director, Bailey Fine. “[Cardin] has no idea what the [civilian casualty] numbers are during the entire war,” only since major hostilities ended, Fine says. “The military would know those numbers, but he does not.”

The Defense Department has said it does not track civilian casualties.

Earlier this month, British Prime Minister Tony Blair rejected calls for an independent inquiry into Iraqi civilian deaths, saying that the Iraqi Health Ministry report is “the most accurate survey that there is,” according to the Associated Press.

The Health Ministry is the only organization tracking civilian casualties through government agencies, and relies largely on hospital reports. However, its records are not believed to be a comprehensive tally of civilian deaths since the end of major hostilities because some Iraqis have been burying their dead without first taking them to a morgue or hospital. Muslim custom requires a quick burial.

Independent estimates of civilian deaths in Iraq and their causes vary widely, and are complicated by discrepancies in methodology and verification. One oft-cited tally is produced by Iraq Body Count, an independent group with anti-war leanings that relies largely on published media reports. As of press time, it estimates that between 14,880 and 17,076 civilians have been killed, but does not break the numbers down by cause of death.

A controversial study by researchers at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health recently estimated there have been as many as 100,000 “extra deaths” in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion. But the research has been criticized for extrapolating numbers based on small samples.

Acquiring reliable information about civilian casualties in Iraq has only become more difficult in the run-up to the scheduled Jan. 30 elections there, says Anne Barnard, the Boston Globe Baghdad bureau chief.

“Many of the civilian deaths in Iraq happen under confusing circumstances,” Barnard tells City Paper. “The Iraqi police are completely unequipped to do full-fledged investigations, the American military as a matter of policy does no routine investigations, and it’s increasingly dangerous for reporters to be on the scene and exhaustively investigate eyewitness accounts. All those factors together mean that locating the blame for a civilian casualty becomes very murky.”

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