April 9, 2003



OHA, Qatar, April 9 — The effort to number the dead on the Iraqi side in the war begins with a conundrum: who is a civilian and who is a combatant?

In Basra, for example, ambulance drivers and hospital workers estimate that they have handled 1,000 to 2,000 corpses during the three-week war.

Some were clearly military — they wore uniforms and army-issued boots. Others were clearly civilians — women and children and the elderly. Some were burned or blasted beyond recognition by bombs, artillery or grenades.

But perhaps hundreds more were men and boys of potential fighting age who arrived at hospitals and morgues in civilian clothes. Were they members of the Republican Guard who had thrown off their uniforms? Were they armed Baath Party loyalists fighting on behalf of Saddam Hussein's government? Were they members of the fedayeen or other irregulars? And even if they were, could they have been trying to surrender and been killed by their own side?

The same puzzle exists across the country, even more acutely and on a much larger scale in and around Baghdad. For example, relentless bombing and a week of ground combat left the Iraqi Army's Baghdad Division reduced to "zero percent strength," according to Marine officers who engaged the division. The Iraqi division was once thought to number about 10,000 soldiers. Where are they?

The problem of first sorting out and then trying to quantify the dead in this war is one that will plague journalists, human rights groups and military historians for years.

Neither British nor American military officials will provide even rough estimates of the number of Iraqi soldiers killed in the war, although they occasionally release figures on individual engagements. The most startling such estimate came from Central Command officials on Saturday, when they said that 2,000 to 3,000 Iraqi soldiers had been killed in a three-hour armed incursion into Baghdad by a column of American armored vehicles. No evidence was offered to back up that assertion.

The bombing campaign that accompanied ground actions to squeeze Iraqi military units into ever-smaller "kill boxes" almost certainly left thousands of soldiers dead, perhaps tens of thousands. But it is likely the world will never know — and there is no Iraqi authority left to count them and notify their families.

The question of enemy dead does not come up in daily briefings for senior commanders at Central Command, according to a senior official here. They are interested solely in the combat effectiveness of the units they face, and how that can be further reduced, he said.

Nor are field commanders being asked to tote up the Iraqi battlefield casualties, although some, out of pride or the military impulse to quantify things, report casualty estimates from discrete battles.

But at the policy level, no such estimates exist.

"We cannot look at combat as a scorecard," said Capt. Frank Thorp of the Navy, the chief military spokesman at Central Command headquarters here. "Out there, in the combat environment, the commander on the ground is focused on the present, the future and how his troops are doing. We are not going to ask him to make specific reports on enemy casualties."

He said that lingering on the battlefield to count the enemy dead is "too time-consuming and, frankly, too risky."

Another official here said that the numbers of Iraqi dead were certainly high, but ultimately unknowable.

"In the bombing of the different divisions, the destruction there was terrifying," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Whole divisions were destroyed — many went home, but many were killed. It won't be until after the war that we get a better accounting, if then."

Mark Burgess, a researcher at the Center for Defense Information in Washington, a private research group, said that the war in Iraq presents unusually difficult problems in estimating the dead, because few Iraqi military units fought in an organized manner. It was also difficult to determine who was in fact an enemy combatant, because many fought out of uniform and many were forced to fight by their superiors.

"It's an unanswerable question," he said. "We don't know the exact number who stood and fought. There really wasn't much in the way of conventional battles."

He said that the nature of the powerful munitions used by American and British air forces had also probably left hundreds or thousands of battlefield victims pulverized, burned or buried.

The center had been posting the official Iraqi estimates of civilian deaths on its web site, but stopped today because the figures coming out of Baghdad had become "outlandish," Mr. Burgess said.

Another group, the Iraq Body Count Project, posts a daily estimate of civilian casualties culled from Arab and Western media reports. The tally today is between 961 and 1,139. But officials from the group caution that those are reported deaths, not actual deaths, which may be considerably higher.

That effort, too, suffers from the same problem that pervades the entire enterprise of counting the Iraqi casualties. Are people working in government ministries civilians or, as the Pentagon likes to call them, "regime targets"? Is a woman who dies as a suicide bomber a civilian or an enemy combatant?

The Iraqi government figures and the estimates from the Body Count Project both suffer from "dubious methodologies," Mr. Burgess said. "We just don't know and we might as well just make up a number," he added.