Counting Iraq’s Dead: Two Years On

April 13th, 2005 - by admin

Islam Online – 2005-04-13 08:39:34

A Global On-line Interview with Prof. John Sloboda, co-Founder of Iraq Body Count
(April 9 ,2005, Makkah 12:00-13:00)

Host: The session has started. Join us with your questions.

Baqr from Indonesia — How could you maintain a project based on voluntary work so successfully?

Prof. John Sloboda — It is based primarily on the personal commmitment of a few people, who give much of their time without pay. But the work is possible, because (a) the technology is cheap (Internet, search engines, chat rooms), and (b) all the data is easily available on the world wide web. This project could not have been possible even 5 years ago. Now it can be done by anyone, anywhere in the world, with a PC internet connection.

Abdullah from India — What is the stance of US and British authorities (responsible for the war on Iraq) regarding Iraq Body Count and the figures of civlian deaths it produces?

Sloboda— There has never been any acknowledgment from the US authorities that Iraq Body Count exists, and certainly no comment on out work or communication from them.

In contrast, our work has been frequently discussed in the British Parliament, and our figures have been cited in the public record of parliament by Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. Nonetheless, the UK government does not accept our figures, or indeed any produced by NGO sources, as accurate. That being so, a campaign has been started at to pressure the UK government into commissioning an official count. This campaign has cross party and general public support. A MORI poll carried out in February 2005 showed that nearly 60% of the UK population would like the British Government to commission such a survey.

Monica from the United Kingdom— What are the difficulties that face IBC in its mission?

Sloboda— Our main difficulty is that we rely on what the world’s media is able or prepared to report. This cannot substitute for the house-to-house census that is the only method that will establish the true and necessary toll of every single victim. Our data are guaranteed to be an underestimate.

A second difficutly is the general indifference of media in the USA and the countries with which it is allied to give high prominence to this data. Deaths are reproted piecemeal, if at all, on the back pages of the quality press. They almsot never reach mass media (such as CNN, Fox News, or USA Today).

MuslimAs a Muslim and an Arab, it seems to me that mainstream Westerners (except for organizations such as IBC and others and other individuals) do not care much about civlian deaths in the Arab/Muslim world.

Thousands of Muslims die in Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan and many other countries at the hands of Americans and Westerners or those supported by them; yet, no one pays attention or cares, whereas when a Western, white civilian dies anywhere, even one civilian, a fuss is made and the media machine starts highlighting the issue. Also your politicians start making strong statemtns and possibly taking actions that kill many in retaliation.

Sloboda— I can only agree with everything you say. It is why we do our work.

This is an extract from an editorial posted on our web site:
On 29th October 2003 the official 9-11 death toll was reduced from 2792 to 2752 when 40 potential deaths were eliminated from the count. Here is a telling extract from the New York Times for that day (our emphases):

“Do we grieve less? Are we happy? What does it mean? “The question is, does it make it any less tragic?” said Jonathan Greenspun, the commissioner of the Mayor’s Community Assistance Unit. “The answer is, no, it doesn’t.”

The change in the number … reflects the best in human nature, city officials say, as personified by investigators so intent on determining the true and sacred number of the dead that they properly took their time, even if it meant that a few fraudulent names, or the names of the living, were sprinkled among those of the many dead.

Better that, they reasoned, than to exclude the name of one true victim.

The mission to specify the number of victims has been a necessary one: partly for history, partly for the distribution of death benefits — and partly to satisfy a communal desire for a number whose exactness might bring some comprehension to the incomprehensible.”

We agree with every word of this quote. We think, however, that every word of it also applies to Iraqi deaths in the current conflict.

Egy— What kind of techniques do you use to do your counting? Do you consider the civilians who are killed by non Anglo-American sides?

Sloboda— We count all non-combatant victims, no matter who they are killed by. Responsibility for those killed in teh insurgency and the breakdown of law and order also lies with the US and the UK in the sense that their actions caused the situation in which these deaths occured. Here is an extract from a recently published article, which explains our method in more detail:

10. We avoid excessively legalistic or moralistic formulations and adopt a predominantly ‘causal’ perspective in distinguishing between combatant and non-combatant civilian deaths. The war and occupation-related deaths of children, women (apart from a very few exceptions) and elderly Iraqis, and of foreign journalists and humanitarian aid workers, are automatically included in our database after undergoing the filtering processes outlined above. Iraqi civilian males described as bystanders, passers-by or uninvolved in initiating deadly violence against occupying troops are also automatically added to our count.

Automatically excluded from the count are reported deaths among members of the Iraqi army when this still functioned as a fighting force, or of any irregular militias who fought alongside them. In the post-war occupation phase, when assessing the status of Iraqi males of military age killed while reportedly exchanging fire with occupation troops, the test for us is this: Could these Iraqis reasonably have expected themselves or others in the immediate circumstances to survive had they not resorted to deadly force? If the answer is yes, we consider them to have died as combatants, not civilians. This formulation parallels the requirement under international humanitarian law for occupying powers only to resort to deadly force ‘when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.’

This formulation parallels the requirement under international humanitarian law for occupying powers only to resort to deadly force ‘when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.’ The issue for us is not one of moral responsibility (which resides overwhelmingly in political leaders), but of causality – namely whether these deaths were a necessary outcome of the war and occupation, or if they could have been avoided had the individuals concerned not taken upon themselves the additional danger of initiating mortal combat with occupation forces.

Thus civilian Iraqis who died after initiating deadly violence while facing no direct or immediate threat to themselves or others are considered by IBC to have adopted combatant status, while those who were forced to use arms in order to protect life are not considered combatants, and retain their civilian status for the purposes of our count. An example of the former would be Iraqis who set ambushes for routine military patrols or convoys; an example of the latter, a man who uses the family rifle in an attempt to repel an attack by occupation troops.

Also excluded from our count are foreign civilian (or semi-civilian ‘security’) workers under the employ of the CPA or its commercial sub-contractors. These violent deaths are also not a necessary result of the war and occupation, because the individuals concerned could have survived its dangers by simply staying out of war-torn Iraq. Nor can the desire for material gain, particularly when it is the predominant motivating factor, be compared to recognized humanitarian imperatives which bring foreigners into war zones, such as the provision of emergency relief or crucial news-gathering.

Dalia— According to your psychological background, what are the remaining psychological problems of the Iraqi people after two years of the fall of Baghdad? Do not you think of launching a project monitor these problems effectively as the IBC does in monitoring the killing of the civilians?

Sloboda— There is indeed a strong need to monitor and report on the psychological (and material) needs, grievances, of victims of the conflict. Unbelievably, this is not a priority of either the Coalition or the Iraqi Government. A few monitoring centres have been set up by NGOs, but their requests that these be set up in every Iraqi cityhave been ignored by officials.

It is becoming apparent that employment is the major need. Recent reports suggest that unmployment is now worse than before the invasion (I think 67% in a recent report).

Margaret from Italy — What do you think are the causes of this unprecedented death toll in Iraq? In your opinion, what could stop it?

Sloboda— The causes are multiple. In the war it was due to indiscriminate bombing in civilian areas, and then by a “shoot first ask questions later policy” of US ground forces. Now there are more complex causes. But our view has always been that the main cause of deaths is the anger and frustration caused by the continuing presence of coalition forces.

We have alwasy consistently argued that the quickest way to stop the death toll is for the total and unconditional withdrawal of all US and UK troops, and their replacement with UN-controlled forces, with a large Arab contingent.

Anti-war— What can ordinary people and NGOs do to (1) help Iraq Body Count and (2) support Iraqi civilians and STOP the killing going on everyday in Iraq?

SlobodaThe main problem is the weakness of state leaders and international bodies (such as the UN) in challenging the policies of the USA and its allies. The job has to be done now by citizens, pressuring endlessly their own political leaders and media. Write, email, telephone people in power in your own country, and ask them why they are ignoring civilian deaths in Iraq.

In the long run, there is a need to change international law. Currently there is no obligation on attackers and occupiers to account for civilian casualties in the area in which they are controlling. Only governments can change international law. Again, you must put pressure on your own political leaders in your own countries.

This is the reason why IRaq Body Count is made up solely of US and UK citizens. Our sole focus is putting pressure on our own governments, which we elected, and for whom our taxes are used to fund this killing. Citizens must work primarily in their own countries and upon their own leaders.

Mohammed from Malaysia — How does Iraq Body Count define “civilians”?

SlobodaPlease see the earlier reply, in which an extract from a chapter fully defined this.

Nancy— Iraq Body Count is obviously constantly developing, and more significant icons are added to the Web site with time. For example, you added a case-by-case database and also the “In Remembrance” item. What are future plans for further developments? What else do you think you need to do? How can other organizations, people help Iraq Body Count and make use of its work?

Sloboda— Our main future plan is to publish a comprehensive report of the first two years of the war, looking in more detail at data in the press reports, such as the proportion of women and children killed, the ratio of different kinds of aggressor (e.g. coalition versus insurgent), and differences over time and place. This will be publsihed in July. Eventually, the full database will be made publicly available.

In the longer term, we need a “World Civilian Body Count” where every conflict everywhere in the world is monitored. We think this should be done by a major international orgnaization such as the Red Cross, Red Crescent, World Health Organisation, or a major international NGO.

In terms of helping the work, the most important thing is to pass on our data and make sure it is known by the largest number of people in the largest number of places. Media coverage is the life blood of our work. We also appreciate donations, which can be made through our web site.

Faizal— Does your and your colleagues’ work in Iraq Body Count lead to any mental difficulties, such as constant sadness and depression as you keep counting and calculating deaths of innocent civilians everyday?

SlobodaThank you for yuor concern. The worst time was during the war of March-April 2003. A notable aspect of our experience, most intense during the first months of our project, was the massive hate campaign mounted against our work from the USA. This took the form of thousands of abusive and threatening e-mails flooding our inboxes, almost all from US destinations. These included vile racist statements about Iraqis, accompanied by the wish that many more Iraqis would die, and that we would join them. We soon discovered that many of the messages we received had identical or almost identical wording. This is most consistent with the notion that many opponents of our work were being encouraged and resourced for their campaign in an organized way. This was not just a set of random isolated comments, but an organized attempt to sabotage the project through demoralizing and distracting its personnel.

The systematic attempt to wear down people by constant psychological abuse is a form of psychological terrorism used by the US military (among others) and given the name PSYOPS. In the run-up to the Iraq War, US and UK warplanes dropped millions of threatening leaflets on the Iraqi population, and broadcast similar messages on specially targeted radio programmes.

The attacks on IBC personnel were deeply stressful, and our strategy for handling them was to channel them all to two members of the team, both US nationals, who dealt with them as best they could, and protected the rest of the team from exposure to them.

Although this allowed the project to move forward unhindered, the psychological cost to the two people involved was heavy. Fortunately abusive attacks on the project dropped off significantly after 1 May 2003, and now arrive at a much lower rate.

For your Comments and Suggestions contact :

Copyright © 1999-2005 Islam Online
All rights reserved.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.