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Sunday 22nd May 2011 saw the official, complete departure of British armed forces from Iraq.1 This provides a fitting moment to reflect upon the fate of Iraqi civilians violently killed in the UK's area of influence.

The unexamined Iraqi dimension of UK involvement in Iraq

22 May 2011

1 "Operations in Iraq finish with completion of Royal Navy training mission"

2 An official timeline of key milestones in the British engagement in Iraq is supplied by the UK Ministry of Defence.

For a more detailed account of the responsibilities and activities of the British in Iraq from 2003-7 see Rangwala, G. (2007) Deputizing in war: British politics and predicaments in Iraq, 2003-07 International Journal of Contemporary Iraqi Studies. 1.3. 293-309.

British forces (Multi-National Division, South East) were responsible for the security of four provinces in southeastern Iraq after the 2003 invasion. These were Basra, Missan, Muthanna, and Thi-Qar.2

While this responsibility was handed back to the Iraqi authorities in stages from September 2004, responsibility for security in the most violent of its domains, Basra, was the British Army's until December 2007, and UK combat forces remained in the region in an advisory capacity until July 2009.

The departure on May 22nd 2011 of a Royal Navy mission training Iraqi sailors marks the official end of British Armed Forces operations in Iraq.

During the period of British security provision from May 2003 to December 2007, 3,334 violent civilian deaths, and 2,099 civilian wounded, were documented, and are detailed in the Iraq Body Count database.

Known to the British Ministry of Defence (MoD) were at least 1,920 homicides recorded by Basra police between January, 2006 and March, 2008 and forwarded to the MoD, and subsequently integrated into the IBC database after a Freedom of Information Act request to the MoD.3

3 We thank Prof Mike Spagat of Royal Holloway University for the original FOIA request and sharing the data with IBC.

4 See e.g. Britain on trial for Iraqis killed by its troops (IND 1 Mar 2004)

The above figures do not include the 1,694 civilians killed and the 6,184 civilians wounded in these four provinces during the US/UK-led invasion phase in March and April 2003 (compared to 5,720 killed and 11,154 wounded civilians documented for the rest of Iraq during the invasion: the southern regions were a major route of the invading ground forces).

Of the post-invasion deaths from May 2003 to December 2007, 193 can at present be directly attributed to the Coalition military, of which 124 have been definitely identified as victims of British military action; some have been or are still the subject of legal action.4

Spreadsheets providing IBC’s monthly breakdowns of reported civilian deaths and injuries in the four southeastern provinces may be downloaded here.

Any lesson-learning to be derived from the UK’s military involvement in Iraq – such as that which is a stated aim of the Iraq Inquiry chaired by Sir John Chilcot (and due to report in late 2011) – must address the question of Iraqi casualties.5 This must include not only civilian casualties, nor be restricted only to those occurring in the regions that were for prolonged periods under UK control, but must encompass all Iraqis killed and wounded since 2003, whether or not publicly known. Any overall assessment of the UK’s involvement in Iraq which fails to include these, the most numerous and direct victims of the conflict, would fail not only the people of the UK but more particularly the people of Iraq.

UK press and media coverage of UK involvement in Iraq almost always mentions the precise number of UK military personnel killed (which finally totalled 179).6 Sadly, there is no such sustained attention to Iraqi civilians and others killed, partly because of a lack of certainty about their precise number. But rather than this being an excuse for ignoring the topic, the very uncertainty underlines all the more how much a serious inquiry into the issue is needed.