Iraq: Casualties of War

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The costs of the occupation keep rising - and the ’blood price‘ is being paid by Iraqi civilians.

General Tommy Franks, the first US proconsul of occupied Iraq, famously stated that ’we don‘t do body counts‘ of Iraqi casualties of war. This is a logical response - who would expect a criminal to supply the evidence for the prosecution? Fortunately the court of public opinion - unlike government inquiries - doesn‘t allow the criminal to appoint the judge.

A year after Blair told us he found it ’palpably absurd‘ that weapons of mass destruction were not being stockpiled in Iraq, the ’blood price‘ paid by Iraqi civilians continues to rise. Iraq Body Count, a group of leading academics and campaigners, has done the victims of the occupation, and by extension the anti-war movement, a huge service by meticulously researching reports of these deaths. Last month that death toll passed 10,000.

Overshadowed

Media coverage of this brutal toll has been overshadowed by coverage of coalition military deaths, which amount to 640 at the time of writing. Of these, 540 are from the US, 59 from Britain, and 41 from other junior allies. These figures are clearly of concern for our rulers - though their often callous treatment of the bereaved families suggests not for humanitarian reasons, but because they indicate an ongoing and increasing level of resistance to the occupation.

George Bush‘s triumphalist declaration of the end of major combat operations on 1 May last year was meant to herald an end to such opposition. And the period from the fall of Baghdad to then had seen only an average of one coalition death per day - a sharp reduction on the average of seven per day in the period preceding that (from the start of the invasion). However, military fatalities have become more frequent in the ten months since. September 2003, with 33 fatalities, was the coalition‘s best month; November 2003, with 110, was its worst. A leaked secret report by USAid last month recorded a significant escalation of the resistance. It said that high-intensity attacks involving mortars, hand grenades and small arms more than doubled from 316 in December to 642 in January and that ’non life-threatening‘ attacks such as rock-throwing and drive-by shootings had risen from 182 in December to 522 in January. It also recorded a total of 11 attacks on coalition aircraft.

The parallel which drives the US ruling class to distraction - that of the Vietnam War - is also prompted by the military death toll, which reached 324 within seven months in Iraq. It took two years of official ’engagement‘ for the figure to reach that in Vietnam, and that discounts the time spent building up ’advisers‘ to the South Vietnamese Diem regime. The phrase coined in that conflict - ‘mission creep‘ - and the belief that an absence of a clearly defined exit strategy got the US bogged down in a drawn-out war with insurgents, sums up the anxiety driving the increasingly muddled strategy of the Bush administration. The ’Vietnam syndrome‘ identified by Henry Kissinger restricted the willingness of post-Vietnam US governments to risk large-scale troop casualties. This was a reticence that the Project for a New American Century was keen to dispel once Bush was in the White House. But the continuing fear of the effect on public opinion of US soldiers coming home in body bags (as 58,000 did from Vietnam) is clear: George Bush has ordered that the media should not photograph coffins, and that the wounded are brought back after midnight.

But media management is not preventing a growing crisis in soldiers’ morale, highlighted last month by US army private Jeremy Hinzman’s attempt to claim refugee status in Canada. ‘I vowed to myself, to my wife and my son, that I would not go to Iraq,’ he told the Guardian. ‘To me it was a war fought on false pretences. Dr Blix went time and time again and he said there were no weapons of mass destruction. They are exploiting the events of 11 September, based on greed and our need for oil.’ This self professed patriot is not alone in his disillusionment. The GI Rights Hotline, a legal aid centre for soldiers, reports an average of 3,500 calls a month from military personnel looking to leave the armed forces. No doubt the unprecedented use of national guards and reservists - rising to 40 percent with the recent troop rotation - is a major factor in this. Reservists do not have the expectation of overseas deployment common to regular forces. ‘My son provided security for the torch at the Olympic games: that’s what I thought the National Guard did,’ says Rosmarie Slavenas, whose son died when his helicopter was shot down in Iraq last November.

The likelihood that John Kerry - both a decorated Vietnam veteran and latterly an opponent of that conflict - will win the Democratic candidacy further compounds Bush’s discomfort. A recent poll even gave Kerry an 8 percentage point lead over Bush - suggesting that Republican portrayals of the Democratic contender as a peacenik might actually be doing him a favour. Bush’s intention to run on his war record appears a rather desperate distraction from the issues cited as voters’ top priorities in a recent Newsweek poll - the economy and jobs, and healthcare - on which his credentials are arguably even worse.

Motivations

All of this is important in understanding the motivations of the Bush administration, but it remains only half the picture. Just as the 58,000 US death toll often cited for the Vietnam War excludes the 4 million Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians killed, so the deaths of Iraqis (either soldiers or civilians) are considered barely worthy of mention in the mainstream media. John Sloboda and Hamit Dardagan’s recent analysis for Iraq Body Count describes this disregard for Iraqi life as ‘Full Spectrum Ignorance’:

‘Howard Dean, who is dubbed by some commentators as an “anti-war” candidate for the presidency, distinguished himself in a speech in Iowa on 3 November by saying, “There are now almost 400 people dead who wouldn’t be dead if that resolution hadn’t been passed and we hadn’t gone to war.”

‘The implication of Dean’s statement (that only 400 killed coalition forces are “people”, and therefore the thousands of killed Iraqis are subhuman and not worthy of mention), should bar him from ever holding office in any civilised nation.’

Of all the Democratic presidential contenders, only one - Denis Kucinich - saw fit to mention civilian casualties on his campaign website.

In the face of the refusal of the US and British governments to make any estimation as to the bloody havoc they have wreaked, Iraq Body Count’s careful compilation of non-combatant deaths is an essential counter to the wilful blindness of the occupiers. By compiling a database of carefully corroborated media reports, they have recorded realistic minimum and maximum figures for civilian deaths emerging from that evidence (the range is 8,249 to 10,093 at the time of writing). But as the authors themselves admit, even their work underestimates the extent of the cost in human life: ‘Many civilian deaths are almost certainly, as yet, unreported, and even the current IBC maximum cannot be considered to approach a complete and final toll of innocent deaths.’

Occupying forces have an obligation under international law to defend the security and wellbeing of the country they have occupied. This has clearly never been the priority of the coalition - the rush to defend the Iraqi oil ministry as schools and hospitals were looted is a prime example. But its sins have not just been ones of omission. Non-coalition contract workers have increasingly been employed in dangerous frontline jobs (such as driving military vehicles) to draw fire away from coalition troops. Their deaths are rarely listed.

And the occupation is not a passive phenomenon. The scale of the resistance is growing because of a mixture of casual brutality and deprivations imposed on the Iraqi people. Attacks on the coalition and its collaborators are not only located in the ‘Sunni triangle’ of central Iraq - although even if that was the case, we were told they would cease when Saddam, who these ‘remnants’ are supposedly loyal to, was captured. Fallujah has been one of the centres of anti-occupation activity, including a successful raid on a prison in February. It is rarely mentioned why this might be the case, but perhaps the equivalent of Bloody Sunday inflicted on residents of Fallujah - when US forces shot 16 demonstrators dead in 48 hours - provides part of the answer.

Military experts regularly clog up news bulletins telling us how comparatively successful British forces have been in southern Iraq. This, apparently, is the result of tactics learnt while policing Northern Ireland. Indeed, just like the Paras in Northern Ireland, British forces in Iraq seem to believe they have a licence to kill.

The Ministry of Defence has refused to accept liability for any deaths, but faces a string of lawsuits over civilians killed during policing operations. The British army is accused of, to give three examples, the unlawful killing of Hanan Shmailawi, who was shot through the head and legs as she sat down to her evening meal; Muhammad Abdul Ridha, shot in the stomach during a raid of his brother in law’s house and Jafaafer Hashim Majeed, a 13 year old killed by a cluster bomb. Amnesty International is investigating a number of other cases, including Ather Karim Khalaf, a taxi driver shot in his car while queuing for petrol; Abdul Jabal Moussa Ali, a headmaster who was beaten and died in custody; and Ahmad Jabbar Kareem, a 16 year old who drowned when British troops forced him to swim across a deep waterway. Baha Mousa, a 26 year old hotel worker, also died in the custody of the British army. He and seven colleagues were bound and hooded as they were subjected to three days of vicious beatings. Baha’s father, Daoud, had earlier reported two British soldiers for looting a hotel safe, for which he believes that Baha was singled out for revenge.

Whether these and the many other victims will receive the justice they deserve is a matter for profound scepticism. The coalition launched its invasion in open defiance of international law, which was once again exposed as impotent in the face of imperial power - a lesson reinforced by the brazen disregard for the human rights of so called ‘enemy combatants’ locked up without charge, trial or representation in Guantanamo Bay, and within the US and Britain. The precedent of ‘pre-emptive’ war, and now ‘pre-emptive justice’, used as alibis by regimes around the world, are another result of this squalid imperial crusade.

Resources

The cost of the war is even greater, however, when we consider how the resources poured into destruction could otherwise have been spent. The international aid budget (itself a fraction of the money squeezed from poor countries through debt repayment) is a mere one twentieth of global military expenditure - now amounting to some $1 trillion annually. The US accounts for over a third of this amount, and recently budgeted $87 billion just for the war in Iraq. Gordon Brown doesn’t have such resources at his disposal - or that’s what he says when it comes to public sector pay, top-up fees, pensions, etc - but he did say he was prepared to spend however much it took to wage ‘the war on terror’. That figure is currently estimated at £6.3 billion, and increases by £200 million every month the occupation continues.

US presidents are rarely worth quoting, but Dwight Eisenhower’s summary of the effects of such spending is a rare exception: ‘Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed’ - or, we could add, every public sector worker underpaid, every student driven into debt, every pensioner pushed into penury.

So who does this war benefit? It was intended as a statement of US military power, but every act of retaliation erodes that message. US hawks argue that moves by Iran and Libya to disclose weapons production show the ‘democratising’ effect of the war. Even leaving aside the rank hypocrisy of the biggest owner of weapons of mass destruction lecturing the world on their possession, this ignores the fact that Iran’s recent elections were transparently rigged and that Libya had been unsuccessfully seeking reconciliation since the late 1980s.

A handful of US-based multinationals are benefiting from the occupation. The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) has embarked on an extensive programme of privatisation. Its plans allow 100 percent foreign ownership of Iraqi state-owned enterprises (except in the oil sector), suspend tariffs and duties for imports and exports, permit unrestricted repatriation of profits and assets, and reduce the top rate of tax from 45 percent to 15 percent. Iraq is being made safe for US profiteering.

One such example is Halliburton, formerly run by US vice-president Dick Cheney, which has been the recipient of $9 billion worth of contracts in Iraq. It has been accused of tripling the cost of gym towels supplied to the army in order to embroider on them the name of its subsidiary Kellogg Brown & Root (KBR). And in one army camp last July it charged for an average of 42,000 meals a day while serving only 14,000, part of an alleged $16 million overcharging in that camp over a seven-month period.

Such cronyism is evident throughout the fire sale of the Iraqi economy. Iraq’s three major airports are under US military control with contracts handed to KBR, Skyline Air and Logistic Support (a Washington-based company) and Bechtel. And Iraq Revenue Watch recently obtained a confidential document revealing a plan to sell off 75 percent of Iraq’s air transport sector to the powerful Khawwam family (which had close links to Saddam’s regime) without competitive bidding or public notice.

The one industry that the US is reluctant to throw to the corporate wolves is oil. All oil revenue spending decisions are made by the CPA’s Program Review Board, which is composed almost entirely of CPA appointees. Its one Iraqi member has apparently attended only two of its twice-weekly meetings. Meanwhile it has spent over $2 billion of the money that Tony Blair promised us would be ‘held in trust for the Iraqi people’ without any possibility of public scrutiny. However, although the CPA has said natural resources such as oil will remain in Iraqi hands, its ‘Order 39 on Foreign Investment’ states that foreign companies have the right to process, refine, market and transport products.

Most of this is in defiance of the 1907 Hague Conventions of War, which demand that ‘the occupying state shall be regarded only as an administrator’. A recent Congressional Research Service report concluded that the sale of state assets violated this role, and that large-scale privatisation contravened existing Iraqi law on foreign investment.

Combined with the desire to distance the US from a degenerating occupation, this helps to explain CPA chef Paul Bremer’s eagerness to hand power to a ‘sovereign’ Iraqi government that can ratify the privatisations and structural reforms so that they can’t be deemed unconstitutional. Unfortunately for him, his attempt to create an appointed government through caucuses has not found favour, with huge demonstrations of Iraqis demanding direct elections instead. His probable Plan B - to turn to the nepotistic, discredited and equally unaccountable Iraqi Governing Council - seems unlikely to prove more popular.

As the clamour for elections in Iraq and the global opposition to the occupation intensify, the political costs of the war will continue to rise for our rulers.