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Almost a year after it was announced, and as it nears its completion, we ask how carefully the UK's official Iraq Inquiry has considered the deadly effects of the war on those affected most pervasively and in the greatest number - ordinary Iraqis.

As if they were of little importance, is the short answer.

The Uninquiring Iraq Inquiry

An ‘Iraq War Inquest’ may be needed to focus attention where it belongs

26 August 2010

On June 15, 2009, Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced an official Inquiry “to identify lessons that can be learned from the Iraq conflict.”1 The Iraq Inquiry was to “to establish as accurately and reliably as possible what happened” during the period from two years before the 2003 invasion to July 30, 2009, covering “the run-up to the conflict in Iraq, the military action and its aftermath.” Describing his brief, the Inquiry’s Chair Sir John Chilcot declared his terms of reference “very broad.” Yet one subject was conspicuous by its absence from any number of promising statements about the Inquiry’s remit and aims. Noticing this to our alarm, we wrote exactly one year ago to the Inquiry’s Chair as follows:

To:
Sir John Chilcot
Chairman, The Iraq Inquiry

26 August 2009

Iraqi casualties must form part of Britain’s Iraq Inquiry

Dear Sir John,

We write to you from the Iraq Body Count (IBC) project, a UK-based non-governmental organisation that has been tracking and analysing Iraqi civilian deaths from violence since the military intervention of 2003.

We urgently request that your Inquiry take full and proper account of Iraqi casualties resulting from the conflict, and the subsequent breakdown in civil security, and that you permit us to submit evidence to the Inquiry on this most crucial question.

We note with growing concern that, in the several months that have passed since the announcement of this Inquiry, official discussion to date has failed to make even passing reference to the matter of Iraqi casualties, whether dead or injured, let alone acknowledge its centrality to any objective assessment of the conflict. We hope that this does not indicate that this critical issue will continue to be relegated to a question of secondary importance. The British government’s very restricted interest in the accumulation and publishing of data on Iraqi casualties has long been a source of widespread dismay, as well as understandable anger, leading such distinguished persons as the 52 former British Diplomats, who wrote an open letter in April 2004 critical of former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Middle East policies, to reserve their strongest language for “the disgrace” of Coalition forces’ failure to track Iraqi deaths. The Iraq Inquiry offers a unique if belated opportunity to investigate Iraqi deaths comprehensively and in appropriate detail, and to critically assess the nature and extent of the damage resulting from our government’s persistent neglect of this issue.

In our view, the “very broad” terms of reference of the Inquiry provide you with more than an opportunity to fully and properly investigate Iraqi casualties: they in effect mandate you to do so.

In his statement to the House of Commons announcing the Iraq Inquiry, Prime Minister Gordon Brown presented the Inquiry with both the reason and means to carry out a first thoroughgoing, official investigation of Iraqi casualties. He referred no fewer than eight times to the principle of “lesson-learning”, stating bluntly that, “the objective is to learn the lessons from the events surrounding the conflict”, and that he was giving the Inquiry “unprecedented” scope to include events “in the full period of conflict”.

This scope includes “the run-up to the conflict..., the military action and its aftermath...the way...actions were taken...to establish...what happened and identify the lessons to be learned.” One of the most important questions in situations of armed conflict and in the laws of war is whether the use of force has been a proportionate response to the threat that prompted it. It is impossible to establish the wisdom of actions taken - even if in hindsight and without a view to apportioning direct blame – if the full consequences in human welfare are not taken into account. Casualty data are perhaps the most glaring indication of the full costs of war.

It is entirely appropriate that, as you stated, one of your “first priorities is to hear from the families of those who died during the conflict and others who were seriously affected, including veterans’ groups”, that you have “already written” to many of them, and “will be sensitive to and respect their wishes”. However, the context in which this statement was made suggests that you have solely British, and not Iraqi families in mind. Yet the logic of these thoughtful measures applies to Iraq with even more force than it does to Britain. Notwithstanding the profound losses suffered by friends and families of British military personnel, relief workers and correspondents killed in Iraq, the fact is that for most of us in Britain, our involvement in the conflict has meant neither bereavement nor personal loss. By contrast, the connection between war and death is all too clear and intimate throughout large swathes of Iraq, where conflict remains as close as the doorstep. Britain’s bereaved can at least be certain that not anyone they know or love might on any given day become part of the conflict’s death toll; again, this is in contrast to Iraq.

Even with the undeniable disparity between the deadly imprint of the war on this country and on Iraq, there is a broader view in which its death toll is simply one that has been exacted on humanity. From that perspective, there is only a single death toll of the war in Iraq: the complete one that includes all nationalities and all demographics. Only by carefully attending to this larger death toll will we understand the war’s full consequences, and place ourselves in a position where the broadest and deepest lessons can be learned.

Collecting all available facts about Iraqi deaths has been IBC’s main activity these past six years. In the absence of comparably fine-grained, reliably sourced information detailing the nature, extent and distribution of casualties in Iraq, IBC’s data on civilian deaths have regularly been drawn upon in various public contexts by independent institutions including relief agencies, the WHO, UNHCR, World Bank and IMF, major Universities, the BBC, Economist, and major press and news agencies in the UK and throughout the world. Most relevant to the Iraq Inquiry, perhaps, is that IBC’s data has also been used in the “lesson-learning” report of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction to the US Congress (Hard Lessons, p 319). We mention the uptake of IBC’s work by others not merely to assert our bona fides, but to emphasise how conventional it is for agencies seriously interested in the facts of a conflict to inquire into its toll on human life which, after all, is central to the whole sorry business of war.

The Iraq Inquiry now has before it a simple choice. On the one hand, it can allow the dead to inform the lessons Britain draws from its military intervention in Iraq. On the other, it can deem them irrelevant. If, as we believe, the latter course is unthinkable for a civilised society, then the facts of Iraqi deaths must first be established, as best they possibly can be. How we respond to this knowledge is a matter for the future. But we must begin by facing all the relevant facts, including (and probably more so) the uncomfortable ones, or risk repeating our errors rather than learning from them.

IBC is ready to assist the Inquiry in such endeavours in any way it can.

Sincerely,

Hamit Dardagan, John Sloboda, for Iraq Body Count


In November 2009 Chilcot wrote to us and said:

“The Inquiry Team were already aware of the work of the Iraq Body Count and we have studied some of the information produced by the IBC. The Inquiry’s terms of reference are broad and require us to focus on the lessons that can be learned from the UK’s involvement in Iraq during 2001-9. The information you have collated will be very useful to help us in this task.”

Despite this statement, the amount of attention paid by the Inquiry to Iraqi casualties, whether killed or injured, civilian or combatant, has been derisory. One rare instance was during the questioning of Tony Blair, where committee member Sir Lawrence Freedman confronted the former Prime Minister with statistics showing the recorded monthly civilian death toll due to violence at the start of each year following the the invasion.2

Though raised, the issue wasn’t dwelt upon or examined closely, nor has it been treated at any point in the Inquiry as a matter for serious investigation. Throughout the Inquiry most of the attention has remained firmly fixed, fixated even, upon the interplay between political and military actors here and in the USA, and the ramifications of the war as felt by them, while the subject that is of greatest concern to the greatest number of people, here as in Iraq, gets only brief mentions.

Only once was there a brief exchange dealing with the Iraqi death toll as a subject worthy of attention in its own right, when Adam Ingram, former Armed Forces Minister and spokesperson on Defence, was being questioned by Inquiry committee member Roderick Lyne.

Ingram justified government silence thus:

“I don’t think we were saying at any point there weren’t mass casualties taking place. What we were not doing was putting a precise or an approximate figure on that.”

A little later Lyne said, “You say it wasn’t MoD’s job. Should it have been somebody else’s job to deal with this?”

Ingram responded:

“Unquestionably. Is it something that DFiD [UK Department for International Development] could have funded? Is it something the FCO [Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Britain’s Foreign Ministry] should have taken ownership care of? The UN had become engaged -- it was still engaged, but not in terms of presence on the ground -- is it a role that they should have played? Yes. Of course the answer to that is yes. But what -- the very establishment of the facts would not have changed what was happening. It would have confirmed what everyone knew, but it wouldn’t have led to a solution, would have been the hard logic I would have had to have applied to that. If I had been asked, as the Minister of the Armed Forces, “Are you prepared to put units in every one of the hospitals to count the bodies in and the bodies out?” and it was my choice, “No”, would have been my answer.”3

And then the conversation moved on to other matters. This is the sum of focused attention to Iraqi casualties in the entire Iraq Inquiry to date.

Given that there has been no official UK attempt to put “a precise or an approximate figure” on mass Iraqi casualties, even this exchange with Ingram couldn’t shed light on the substantive matter of the destroyed lives themselves, or their scale and extent. Rather it only touched on - albeit far too fleetingly - this very lack of recording and reporting by the Government.

In sharing this reluctance to inquire too deeply into the human consequences of the war (when these humans happen not to be British officials, bureaucrats and politicians, but ordinary Iraqis), the Iraq Inquiry is taking its cue from the Government that appointed it. But while Ingram may have thought that casualty recording was not a priority for Britain’s armed forces, senior military voices are now thinking otherwise.

On August 20th a paper co-authored by IBC’s two founders and a senior serving Army Officer was published in the British Army Review.4 In this paper it is argued that not only is the recording and publishing of casualty figures technically feasible for the armed forces, it is actually in their interests, and the interests of the politicians they serve, to do so.

4 Available for public access via Oxford Research Group

In this respect the evidence presented by Ingram to Chilcot has not kept up with the most recent military thinking, but then nor did Chilcot take pains to investigate the question fully.

Chilcot's 30 July 2010 “closing statement” on the Inquiry’s public hearings, which indicated that these are effectively ended and emphasised that further hearings would be held “if - and only ‘if’” there are “conflicts or gaps” within the existing evidence, added in the very same breath that:

The Inquiry also hopes to visit Iraq. We want to see for ourselves the consequences of UK involvement, to hear Iraqi perspectives and to understand the prospects for Iraq today. For the security of both the Inquiry team and those whom we wish to meet, we shall not publish any further details in advance of a visit. If we are able to visit Iraq, we shall provide a summary afterwards, as with our other overseas visits.5

5 "Public hearings: Sir John Chilcot’s closing statement" (30 July 2010)

6 Among those who might have been allowed to speak of their war experience early in the Inquiry is an Iraqi refugee community within the UK.

We also hope the Inquiry is able to visit Iraq, to do so safely, and to gather evidence from Iraqis, in particular those who have been most profoundly and tragically affected by this war. But is this not far too late? The evidence heard by the Inquiry should from the outset have been taken in the context of the full human consequences of the war, allowing this to inform both the questioning and direction of the Inquiry itself. Now appearing as little more than an afterthought, this Iraqi perspective comes last of all when by any just measure it should have come first.6

Earlier official Inquiries into the war have been criticised for having too narrow a remit. In contrast, the Chilcot Inquiry has evidently been given one so broad and indeterminate that it has been able to obsess minutely over the ‘war at home’ to the detriment of everything else. Indeed one would almost think that the Iraq war largely took place in Britain.

There are certainly a few instances of so-called “home-grown terrorism” on British soil which may well be inextricably linked to events in Iraq. But in the main, this war’s largest and most irrevocable effects are on Iraqis, not on British (or American) citizens.

Since untimely and violent death on a massive scale is the central fact of this war, perhaps only an ‘Iraq War Inquest’ can bring a sustained focus on that subject, and make it as unavoidable a lesson of this war for the UK as it has been for Iraqis. The form that this might take is a full judicial inquiry into all casualties in Iraq, whether dead or injured. As a matter of international and domestic law, the UK bears equal responsibility if it aided and assisted any of its allies in causing disproportionate civilian casualties or other breaches of law.

If we cannot engage with the bitter experience of the Iraqi people, if we cannot reach out with empathy to understand even the simple facts of their losses, then that says something about a different kind of damage within our mind-set in Britain and the West. And this in itself is a salutary if uncomfortable lesson we can indirectly learn from the flawed Chilcot Inquiry to date.