Tue 21 October, 2003 15:00 BST


By Rosalind Russell

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - In the violence of postwar Iraq, civilians are overwhelmingly the victims, killed by bombs aimed at others, nervous U.S. soldiers and random shootouts.

The number of Iraqis killed since the war which ousted Saddam Hussein in April eclipses the death toll among U.S. soldiers who face daily attacks from guerrillas fighting the occupation of the country.

Since President George W. Bush declared major combat over on May 1, 104 U.S. soldiers have been killed in hostile fire.

Iraq Body Count, an Anglo-American research group tracking deaths of Iraqis, says at least 5,700 died during the six-week war. But soaring violence since the U.S. takeover has killed a further 2,000 to 2,200 civilians.

Suicide bombers aiming for foreign targets in the Iraqi capital such as the United Nations, the Jordanian embassy and the Baghdad Hotel have killed more Iraqis than foreigners -- local employees, security guards and passers-by.

As concrete fortifications are erected around embassies, hotels and buildings used by Western organisations and the U.S.-led administration in Baghdad, it is Iraqis left on the other side of the walls who are the most likely victims of future attacks.

"We are waiting for something to happen," said 23-year-old Ali Abdul Hussein, who earns $80 a month guarding a Western embassy. "We have heard about the attacks on other embassies and we know this may be our fate.

Roadside bombs meant for U.S. soldiers explode every day, often missing the military convoys for which they were intended and killing or maiming Iraqi civilians.

A bomb planted in northern Baghdad last month hit two civilian buses, killing one person and wounding more than 20. Another bomb found in the town of Baquba at the weekend went off as police were trying to clear the area, killing a civilian and wounding 19 with burning shrapnel.

"Although these attacks may be targeted, the consequence is that they kill people indiscriminately," said Nada Doumani, spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Baghdad. "It is civilians who are paying the price."


Anti-American bombers are not the only threat to Iraqi civilians. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, U.S. troops have killed at least 20 civilians in Baghdad since May 1.

Hundreds more Iraqis have been killed in street violence in a country where most people keep guns at home and have been readier to use them since the end of Saddam's authoritarian rule.

Gun battles between armed looters and vigilantes, business rivals and feuding families are common on Iraq's streets. Hapless civilians are often caught in the crossfire.

The U.S.-led military occupiers and the new Iraqi police force say they are making progress towards ending the violence by arresting criminals and confiscating arms. U.S. officials say they are doing everything they can to avoid civilian casualties.

The New York-based rights group said it had collected "credible reports" of a total of 94 civilians killed by American soldiers in the Iraqi capital, at checkpoints, in raids and after attacks on U.S. patrols, when twitchy soldiers sometimes spray the area around them with gunfire.

Two civilians were killed this week in the town of Falluja, west of Baghdad, in a firefight which followed an attack on a U.S. military convoy, witnesses said. The U.S. military does not keep a record of civilian deaths.

The report said just a handful of alleged killings had been investigated at senior level, and soldiers were not held accountable for their actions.

"It's a tragedy that U.S. soldiers have killed so many civilians in Baghdad," said Joe Stork, head of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division. "But it's really incredible that the U.S. military doesn't even count these deaths."

"The military intervention was supposed to make life better for Iraqis and give them a measure of freedom," Iraq Body Count researcher Hamit Dardagan told Reuters. "But violence and terror is not freedom."