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Immediately after the US/UK invasion, there was a brief opportunity for civil society to establich the human cost of the war. The initiatives which rose to that challenge, or attempted to, are reviewed here.

Their efforts, like IBC's up to that time, were to prove incomplete not only from lack of resources and reliable data, as the article discusses, but because only a single phase � the invasion leading to 'regime change' � of the war was over.

3. The projects

All projects mentioned in this review are summarised in the table on the last page of this article. Each project is named and assigned a table-linked number (#1, #2, etc.) reflecting order of mention in the text.

3.A. Indirect projects based on secondary sources of information

Iraq Body Count (#1 - IBC) began its work in January 2003, and its data base includes civilian deaths reported from January 1st 2003 onwards. The choice of January 1st for the start of the count (rather than March 19th) was deliberate. US/UK military actions against Iraq have been continuous from 1991 to the present day. The illegal US/UK patrols and bombing raids in the northern and southern “no-fly” zones have taken place on a weekly, and sometimes daily, basis until 15th March 2003. Between the 1991 Gulf War and early 2002 some 1,476 people had been killed by such bombing raids, according to official Iraqi figures.

Although not directly focused on civilian deaths, US Bombing Watch (#2), a project of the Colorado Campaign for Middle East Peace, has provided a unique research and public information resource. This project has recorded every single media-reported bombing raid carried out by US or UK warplanes in Iraq since January 1999 (and plans to provide data going all the way back to 1991). To date they have recorded over 300 bombing incidents between January 1999 and the March 2003 invasion.

IBC started counting civilian deaths from the beginning of the month in which it became active. The 2003 “body count” of civilians killed by US/UK military actions already stood at 15 on the eve of the March 19th invasion. At the time of writing, the IBC project consists of 126 separate database entries recording media-reported civilian deaths, amounting to a maximum (reported) number of 7,203 such casualties of the war on Iraq.

IBC’s methodology requires each report of civilian deaths entered into its database to have been published by at least two independent media sources meeting certain prescribed standards, as set out in our published Methodology, occasionally supplemented by findings from recognized NGOs such as the Mines Advisory Group (MAG - see below). A range of internal checks are also undertaken within the research team before a minimum and maximum number is published for each item in the data base. This methodology has been very useful in discounting inaccurate reporting (sometimes due to mistranscription of interview data), or initial estimates rushed into print in order to meet press deadlines. While the dual-publisher requirement has prevented some (otherwise impeccable) reports from being included in the IBC database, this has most often been only a temporary exclusion until other corroborating news stories became available. And because IBC always ties its entries to specific times, locations and other “identifiers” it has been able to deal with potential double-counting (for an example of this process in action, refer to the Notes to Incident x073 in our database).

Beyond evaluating whether a source is or was in any position to know, IBC has never passed judgement on the original source of the estimate. Original sources have been those which are normally available to journalists, including government-employed spokespersons of the parties to the conflict, eye-witnesses, relatives, doctors, hospital officials, mortuary and funeral directors, and workers or spokespersons for NGOs and aid agencies. In early phases of the war, some, though not all, news reports of civilian casualties relied solely on press briefings from Iraqi officials, whose estimated total had risen to 1,252 civilian deaths by the time of their final briefings on April 4th. Some of the Iraqi data was unusable in IBC’s database because it lacked the “identifiers” mentioned above, but in any event IBC’s current total from a variety of sources has risen since early April to a maximum of approximately 7,200 deaths, with only about 130 of these remaining solely derived from Iraqi press briefings. Despite early claims that their figures were inflated for propaganda purposes, it is now clear from the projects under review that the Iraqi figures were ultimately under-estimates, as are all those based only on information from hospitals, and were further hindered by the breakdown of Iraqi communication channels and the government's more pressing concern with its own survival. (A recent Associated Press investigation referenced below provides more detail on how the Iraqi statistics were produced.)

In this context it is surprising that Operation Iraqi Freedom Total Casualty Report (#3) includes only the Hussein regime’s composite estimate of April 4th in its web-based table (this was its “methodology” during the war as well - to simply repeat the most recent official Iraqi claim with a disclaimer). The authors of this project, sponsored by the Washington-based Center for Defence Information (CDI), state that “until reporters gain unfettered access throughout the whole of Iraq, it will continue to be our position that there is simply no way to clearly ascertain the true extent of Iraqi civilian casualties. When such a time does arrive, rest assured that we will give these figures the coverage that they deserve.” At the time of writing the last entry to this database appears to have been made on May 6th.

A more comprehensive and widely-sourced project is Casualties of the 2003 Iraq War (#4), which is the personal initiative of Pranav Jani, a teacher at Wagner College, New York. This project is based on what the author describes as “informal internet searches”.

At the time of writing this project lists 217 separate media-reported incidents in which there were casualties, either civilian or military, US or Iraqi, starting March 19th and going up to the present time. Unlike IBC this project makes no attempt to correct for possible double counting in differing reports (and is completely explicit about this). It provides data in the form of a 6-column table, listing Iraqi dead, Iraqi wounded, coalition dead, coalition wounded, and the dead and wounded of other nationalities. Civilian and military casualties are not separated out, but this is one of the few serious attempts to publish a comprehensive list of wounded as well as dead. Presumably because no mechanism is in place to prevent double counting in its “informal” coverage of media reports, Casualties of the 2003 Iraq War refrains from offering any totals.

The projects described so far are the only ones which have operated in the public eye from the very first day of the invasion of Iraq.

A promising but quickly aborted intervention was made by the Swiss Foreign Ministry's List of civilian victims of the war in Iraq (#5), one week into the war. On the last weekend of March the foreign minister Micheline Calmey-Rey was quoted as saying her ministry would publish a list of civilians killed in the Iraqi conflict and implied that Switzerland, as the depository state of the Geneva conventions, had a duty to draw attention to the innocent victims of the war. This was especially significant for being the first time such a project had been undertaken by a government, and it was apparently well-organized and already under way:

“Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy Rey Monday, March 31, was quoted by the German paper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung as saying that the section - operational since Monday morning - gathers information and data from credible and documented sources, adding [that] names of new victims would be added on an hourly basis.

The initial data available so far reveals the dirtiness of U.S.-British warmongers, the fakeness of their claims about a clean war, as well as their indifference to the lives of innocent, unarmed Iraqi civilians, Rey, member of the ruling Socialist Democratic Party, was quoted by the paper as saying.” (IslamOnline)

However after a vociferous outcry from right-wing parties in the country the project was abandoned just two days after it was announced, with the Minister citing only the difficulty of finding reliable sources of information. It is perhaps telling that at the time most (though by no means all) of the reports of civilian casualties were being disseminated from the Iraqi Ministry of Information, and that one of the accusations being laid at her door was that the list of dead would “become part of the propaganda of this war.” No attempt was made by the Swiss authorities to re-activate their proposal as multiple and independent sources of information became increasingly available.

The only other project based on indirect data known to us is the Project on Defence Alternatives (PDA) report dated 21 May 2003 and entitled Civilian Casualties in the 2003 Iraq War: A Compendium of Accounts and Reports (#6). This Washington-based group collected excerpts of journalistic and other accounts, including those of the Iraq Peace Team (IPT - see below), into a compendium “meant to serve as a database for further investigation of the modes and dynamics of conflict that generate non-combatant casualties”. The authors write as follows:

“The accounts cover the period from 19 March through the middle of May 2003, but the compendium is by no means a complete and comprehensive accounting of civilian casualties in the war. That said, the compendium probably includes a majority of the accounts of major incidents of multiple noncombatant death known to have occurred up to 15 May 2003. Moreover, the mortality reports from hospitals and cemetery records recounted here, while not complete, are sufficient in scope to suggest the scale of collateral fatalities in the war.

The accounts derive almost exclusively from Western sources. None rely solely on official Iraqi government reports of casualties. The compendium also strongly favors accounts based on field investigations by journalists, eyewitness testimony, and the testimony of doctors, families of victims, residents of neighborhoods in which incidents occurred, aid workers, and cemetery personnel. The collection method included tracking numerous Western news sources on a daily basis and supplementing this with news database and Internet news searches. Notably, the effort focused on major cases of multiple civilian fatalities insofar as these (1) often generated more than one independent report and (2) constituted a subset of incidents that, while manageably small, nonetheless reflected a significant portion of the war’s cost in civilian casualties.”

The authors then strike the following note of caution:

“While the accounts collected here provide a basis for estimating the total number of civilian fatalities during the war, a useful estimate cannot be derived by simply adding together the death tolls given in the various accounts. Further analysis is required to address some of the inconsistencies in the accounts and to avoid the problem of double counting. The records of deaths from the Baghdad hospitals especially suggest the difficulty of separating civilian noncombatant deaths and civilian combatant ones. Such an analysis is attempted in a Project on Defense Alternatives memo accompanying this compendium.”

Unfortunately, at the time of writing (12th June) the analysis or “memo” referred to has not been made available on the PDA web site. Analyses designed to address such issues have been systematically developed by IBC (for an example see IBC Incident x073), and we await with interest PDA’s publication of their solution to the problems of varying accounts, double counting and distinguishing civilian from non-civilian deaths.

Useful features of the PDA report are its reasonably extensive direct quotes from key sources, and its organisation of most of its data in chronological order, graphically depicting the unfolding of the conflict. However, it appears to offer little fresh data that is not already included in Iraq Body Count (#1) or Casualties of the 2003 Iraq War (#4), and its explicit lack of completeness sits oddly with claims that its data is “sufficient in scope to suggest the scale of collateral fatalities in the war” or provides “a basis for estimating the total number of civilian fatalities during the war.”

We would like to sound our own note of caution on any assessment of total “collateral fatalities” which involves extrapolating from supposedly representative samples to the entire country (for which purpose PDA appears to be suggesting that its compendium is “sufficient in scope”). While this approach might have some limited value under circumstances where evidence could not otherwise be expected to emerge, there is no reason to assume this about a fairly well-developed and well-educated society such as Iraq’s; nor are we convinced that such extrapolations could have the same value as, let alone substitute for or improve upon, those conducted in the more painstaking manner of counting those deaths that have actually been recorded - and IBC has accordingly resisted the temptation to make such extrapolations based on its own much larger and arguably more “representative” database.