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Press Release 17 16 Apr 2009

The Weapons That Kill Civilians — Deaths of Children and Noncombatants in Iraq, 2003–2008

Analysis of armed violence in Iraq reveals the weapons most lethal and indiscriminate to civilians

Researchers from King’s College London and Royal Holloway, University of London in the UK, together with members of the non-profit group Iraq Body Count, have published a new event-based analysis of the impact of different weapon-types on Iraqi civilians in the April 16, 2009 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine:

The Weapons That Kill Civilians – Deaths of Children and Noncombatants in Iraq, 2003-2008

Using the extensive and detailed database of Iraq Body Count (IBC), the researchers analyzed 14,196 events in which 60,481 civilians were violently killed during the first five years of the conflict in Iraq, thereby gaining an extraordinary overview of the harm that different weapons — from low to high tech — have brought to Iraq's civilian population. Dr Madelyn Hicks of King’s College London, lead author of the article, said, “By linking a large number of deaths to the particular weapons used in specific events, the IBC database offers a unique opportunity for detailed analysis of the public health impact of different forms of armed violence on Iraqi civilians.”

For overall combined causes of civilian death from weapons in the data-set — ranging from gunfire, to improvised explosive devices used in roadside bombs, to precision-guided missiles — the average number killed per event was 4. However, the researchers found that when air-launched bombs or combined air and ground attacks caused civilian deaths, the average number killed was 17, similar to the average number in events where civilians were killed by suicide bombers travelling on foot (16 deaths per event).

The authors relate their findings to international humanitarian law and the need for effective policies to protect civilians. Describing suicide bombers on foot as a form of precisely targetable “smart bomb,” they argue that their pattern of killing high numbers of Iraqi civilians can only result from disregard for civilian life when targeting opposition forces, or the direct targeting of civilians, which is a war crime. Regarding their finding of a high rate of civilian death from aerial bombs, they write, “It seems clear from these findings that to protect civilians from indiscriminate harm, as required by international humanitarian law (including the Geneva Conventions), military and civilian policies should prohibit aerial bombing in civilian areas unless it can be demonstrated — by monitoring of civilian casualties, for example — that civilians are being protected.”

The researchers were also able to analyze the demographic characteristics of noncombatants who fell victim to different forms of violence. Execution after abduction or capture was the single most common form of death overall, with by far most of its victims (95%) being male. Nearly a third of execution victims were described as bearing marks of torture, evidence that they had suffered “a particularly appalling form of violent death.”

For Iraqi females, and children, events involving air attacks and mortar fire were the most dangerous. In air attacks causing civilian deaths, 46% of victims of known gender were female, and 39% of victims of known age were children. Mortar attacks claimed similarly high proportions of victims in these two demographic groups (44% and 42%). By comparison, 11% of victims across all weapons types were Iraqi females, and 9% were children. The authors argue that their findings showing that air attacks (whether involving bombs or missiles) and mortars killed relatively high proportions of females and children is further evidence that these weapons should not be directed at civilian areas by parties to conflict because of their indiscriminate nature. As co-author Professor John Sloboda of Royal Holloway, University of London, who is also a co-founder of IBC, notes, “Our weapon-specific findings have implications for a wide range of conflicts, because the patterns found in this study are likely to be replicated for these weapons whenever they are used.”

The authors conclude that “Policymakers, war strategists of all persuasions, and the groups and societies that support them bear moral and legal responsibility for the effects that particular combat tactics have on civilians — including the weapons used near and among them.” 1

Authors can be contacted at:

Dr. Madelyn Hicks, King’s College London:

Hamit Dardagan, Iraq Body Count:

Prof. John Sloboda, Royal Holloway, University of London and Iraq Body Count:

Prof. Michael Spagat, Royal Holloway, University of London: