The New York Times & The San Francisco Chronicle – 2007-01-16 22:04:54
UN Puts ’06 Death Toll in Iraq Above 34,000
Sabrina Tavernise / The New York Times
BAGHDAD (January 16, 2007) — The United Nations reported Tuesday that more than 34,000 Iraqis were killed in violence last year, a figure that represents the first comprehensive annual count of civilian deaths and a vivid measure of the failure the Iraqi government and American military to provide security.
Numbers of civilian deaths have become the central indicator for the trajectory of the war and are extremely sensitive for both Iraqi and American officials. Both track the tallies but neither will release them.
This latest figure was the first attempt at hand-counting individual deaths for an entire year. It was compiled using statistics from local morgues, hospitals and municipal authorities across Iraq and was nearly three times higher than an estimate for 2006 compiled from Iraqi ministry tallies by The Associated Press earlier this month.
An Iraqi government spokesman called the count exaggerated and said it had been obtained using “incorrect sources.” Though the Iraqi government closely tracks deaths through the Interior and Health Ministries, he said it did not have a system in place for compiling a comprehensive figure.
The vast majority of Iraqi deaths are reported, at least to local authorities, so that Iraqis can obtain death certificates to prove inheritance and to receive government compensation. Some deaths still go unreported, however, and the United Nations tally may in fact be lower than the true number of deaths nationwide.
As death tolls have risen, the lack of security has become the single most important barrier to success of the American enterprise here. The numbers of dead, at least at the Baghdad morgue, are running double what they were in 2005.
Underscoring the challenge, even as the United Nations released its figure — 34,452 deaths in all — at least 70 more people were killed when a series of bomb blasts struck a largely Shiite university in northeast Baghdad.
After almost four years of war, in which Americans focused largely on fighting an elusive enemy — Sunni Arab militants and, more recently, Shiite death squads — military commanders say that keeping Iraqis alive has now moved to the center of the strategy proposed by President Bush that would increase American troop levels in Baghdad by more than 20,000.
For many Iraqis, the pledge comes late. The numbers reported by the United Nations were more than tenfold the total number of American deaths for the entire war. As previous attempts to secure Baghdad have failed, tens of thousands of middle class Iraqis have given up and fled the country. Those who remain are becoming increasingly radicalized as the violence draws them into cycles of revenge.
A previous estimate of the civilian death toll from the Iraq war by a group of academics had relied on extrapolated data and was highly contested. Despite the criticism from the Iraqi government, the United Nations said it used all official sources, tallying death certificates.
The report said an average of 94 Iraqis died every day in 2006, with about half of the deaths occurring in the capital.
The majority died from gunshot wounds, an execution-style killing that is a common method for death squads, both Sunni and Shiite. The report registered the most lethal month as October, with deaths declining slightly in November and December.
Violence between Sunni Arabs and Shiites, virtually unheard of in the early years of the war, has become the all-consuming driver.
Military commanders have acknowledged that they underestimated the seriousness of the sectarian killings, which took off across the capital after the bombing of a shrine in Samara drew Shiites into the war. Before that, Sunni Arab militants did most of the killing. Now, the capital is mired in violence, as the two groups fight bitterly over territory.
In the shootings, bodies surface days later in sewers and garbage dumps. The report said that most unidentified bodies were found in six neighborhoods of Baghdad, three Sunni — Dora, Rashidiya and Adhamiya — and three Shiite — Sadr City, New Baghdad and the hardscrabble slum of Shuala.
“It’s important to identify the root cause of the violence,” said Gianni Magazzeni, chief of the United Nations’ Human Rights Office in Baghdad, which compiled the report. “Lack of accountability for crimes generates the urge for justice through armed groups.”
The result, described by the report, is a society in collapse. At least 470,094 Iraqis have fled their homes since February. The number of displaced Iraqis was the highest in the embattled Sunni province in Anbar, where 10,105 families fled, followed by Karbala in the south, Baghdad and Dohuk in the north.
Iraqi government forces also suffered painful losses. The report cited a Ministry of Interior figure of 12,000 Iraqi security forces in the army and the police who were killed since 2003.
The general breakdown in order has led to a wave of crime, and many of the killings were part of that.
“This law and order vacuum has an encouraging effect on criminal groups of various affiliations, many of whom use the Internet, mobile phone messaging system, videos and pamphlets to promote their criminal activities,” the report said.
Iraqis most tormented by the violence are those least able to protect against it: the poor. Um Qasim, a cleaning lady, has lost three brothers, a sister-in-law, a nephew, a stepson and a son, all in the past three years. Two of her other sons are in jail in the northern city of Mosul for playing minor roles in a kidnapping arranged by her own brother.
Life improved in a brief but joyous spurt, immediately after the invasion. During the looting that followed the American invasion of Iraq, her family took pieces of metal and second-hand bricks and built a solid roof and a second story on their modest house.
But her life quickly unraveled as two of her sons, looking for money, got involved in a kidnapping and got caught. Another son, just 16 years old, was killed by Sunni extremists not far from their house near Haifa Street, a poor, mostly Sunni Arab area that has been the scene of intense fighting in recent weeks.
Ms. Qasim works several job cleaning the homes of affluent Iraqis and takes minivans around the city to get to work. Under Saddam Hussein her main worry was how to feed her family. Now it is how to keep them alive.
“I never thought that one day I would have to think about how to keep them alive,” she said.
”Now, when I go out of my house in the morning, I pray to God that when I return, I will see all of them there alive,” she said, referring to her children.
The violence has expanded to the point of overflowing hospitals and morgues. The United Nations report described several recent mass graves. In the southern city of Najaf, the grave was shallow, with bodies partially visible, and locals asked local authorities to dig it up to protect children in the area. In Baquba, north of Baghdad, 28 bodies, members of the al-Shimari tribe, had been kidnapped and killed.
In Baghdad, where dozens of broken bodies turn up daily, the most feared site is on the edge of Sadr City, the largest Shiite enclave in northeastern Baghdad. Bodies are dumped in pre-prepared holes in the area, called al-Sadda, the report said.
“The area is considered very dangerous and controlled by the militias,” the report said. “No one, including Iraqi security forces, can visit the area without authorization of the militias.”
The report also provided details on the outcomes of a number of mass kidnappings that tormented Iraqis throughout the fall. The attacks seem to be a signature of Shiite militia.
About 70 Iraqis, almost all Sunni Arabs, are still missing after being kidnapped in November from the Ministry of Higher Education in downtown Baghdad. The seizure happened on a day when teachers from the Sunni areas of Anbar, Salahuddin and Mosul were visiting.
The kidnappings have completely redrawn the composition of neighborhoods. In Sinek, a wholesale market in the heart of Baghdad, once thoroughly mixed, is slowly emptying of Sunni Arabs. Men in uniforms seized around 50 merchants on Dec. 2. About 29 were later released. All were Shiite.
Ms. Qasim, a Shiite, is clinging to life on a shrinking sliver of land safe for Shiites in the increasingly hostile Sunni area of Haifa Street. When her 16-year-old disappeared, shortly after he left the house late in November, she got a phone call from men she did not know, asking her if she was a Shiite, and if she knew the names of the Shiite saints.
She replied that she did, and named a few. They told her she would soon find her son.
A day later she found him, face down on a street two blocks from her house. His hands were bound and his body was riddled with bullets.
“It never occurred to me that I might lose them like this,” she said. “Never.”
Iraq Refugee Crisis Exploding — 40% of Middle Class Believed to Have Fled Crumbling Nation
Carolyn Lochhead / San Francisco Chronicle Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON (January 16, 2007) — Iraq is in the throes of the largest refugee crisis in the Middle East since the Palestinian exodus from Israel in 1948, a mass flight out of and within the country that is ravaging basic services and commerce, swamping neighboring nations with nearly 2 million refugees and building intense pressure for emigration to Europe and the United States, according to the United Nations and refugee experts.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which appealed for $60 million in emergency aid last week, believes 1.7 million Iraqis are displaced inside Iraq, whose prewar population was 21 million. About 50,000 Iraqis are fleeing inside Iraq each month, the United Nations said, and 500,000 have been displaced since last February’s bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra. These figures are as of January 2007.
The Bush administration and the governments of Jordan and Syria, the nations that accept the bulk of the refugees, have been reluctant to acknowledge the humanitarian crisis, experts said.
“I think everyone at this point is in denial about the human consequences of the war,” said Kathleen Newland, director of the Migration Policy Institute, who is familiar with the State Department’s views.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., has scheduled a hearing today to push for more aid and more US admissions of refugees, especially those facing death threats for working for the US military.
At Kennedy’s hearing, the State Department is expected to call for a slight increase in Iraqi admissions to the United States. Just 220 Iraqis were admitted last year, most of them not from the war. The Department of Homeland Security worries that it would be difficult to screen out terrorists.
“I would suspect that the Department of Homeland Security would regard it as a complete security nightmare,” Newland said.
Kristele Younes, an advocate at Refugees International, said the refugee problem is growing rapidly.
“At the moment, we’re seeing up to 80,000 to 100,000 that are being displaced every month,” inside and outside the country, she said. “In Syria alone, there are estimations that there’s about 40,000 Iraqis that are coming every month.”
Roughly 40 percent of Iraq’s middle class is believed to have fled, the UN said. Most are fleeing systematic persecution and have no desire to return.
All kinds of people, from university professors to bakers, have been targeted by militias, insurgents and criminals. An estimated 331 school teachers were slain in the first four months of last year, according to Human Rights Watch, and at least 2,000 Iraqi doctors have been killed and 250 kidnapped since the 2003 US invasion. Business owners are especially prone to extortion.
The flight has undermined basic services such as water and sanitation and disrupted commerce, making it increasingly difficult for Iraqi society to function, officials said.
Iraqi Christians were an early target after the 2003 invasion; after the February bombing, Shiite militias began taking revenge on Sunnis. Violence is rising in southern Iraq between rival Shiite factions. Refugees International said many people are targeted for “un-Islamic” dress or behavior.
Iraqis who work for the US government or any Western group, such as nongovernmental organizations and the news media, are especially vulnerable.
“People are targeted in extremely direct ways — kidnapping, killings, rapes,” Younes said. “Every single family we interviewed had gone through such an ordeal, and the tribal system in Iraq is such that revenge is carried out generation to generation, so they feel … return to Iraq would be tantamount to a death sentence.”
While the Bush administration is hastily devising new reconstruction plans for Iraq, refugee advocates say the country most needs emergency humanitarian aid for the most vulnerable, including orphans and women.
US officials have “wanted to keep the impression that they were being successful and that there were Iraqis who were committed to building democracy,” said Bill Frelick, refugee policy director at Human Rights Watch and author of an extensive report on the situation. “As it turns out, many of the people who are fleeing are fleeing because of their associations with the United States.”
Syria and Jordan, for their part, may want to avoid being formally saddled with refugees who have special international status.
Newland said Syria and Jordan consider the refugees tourists or illegal immigrants, “which sort of implies that the problem will go away or that they would be perfectly within their rights to kick people out.”
Jordan, a US ally, has long accepted Arab refugees, and so has Syria’s pan-Arabist dictatorship. The fear now is that both may close their borders. Pressure on Jordan, a country of just 6 million, is intense, with Iraqi refugees now accounting for 10 percent of its population — the equivalent of 30 million landing on US shores. Jordan began restricting entry after Iraqis bombed three hotels in Amman in 2005.
Many Iraqis are also living in Egypt and Lebanon. Iran, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have barred Iraqis.
“There’s just no way a small country like Jordan can, unaided, absorb hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees,” Newland said.
Despite terrorism concerns, some predict the United States eventually will admit several hundred thousand Iraqi refugees, as it has after most military conflicts.
“Is it going to be one of the unintended consequences of our invasion and occupation of Iraq that we may end up taking hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees in this country?” said James Hollifield, an expert in international migration and director of the Tower Center for Political Studies at Southern Methodist University. “I think there’s a high probability of that, which is what we saw after Vietnam.”
When the South Vietnamese government collapsed, the United States initially accepted 130,000 Vietnamese, including 65,000 fearing their lives because of their collaboration with Americans. Many conferences later, 1.4 million Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians had been admitted, according to US Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Smaller admissions of refugees and those claiming asylum followed the conflict in Nicaragua in the 1980s, two Cuban crises in the 1960s and 1980s, the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the Gulf War in the 1990s and the failed 1956 Hungarian Revolution. The United States is the largest refugee host in the world, admitting 2.66 million since 1976.
“The reality is that refugee flows are really tied to foreign policy,” said David Reimers, a historian emeritus at New York University. “It’s perfectly possible that we could wind up with a couple hundred thousand Iraqi refugees.
“The parallel to me would be after Vietnam War,” Reimers said. “There was a frantic number of Vietnamese who wanted to get out, and we were caught unawares; 130,000 or so climbed aircraft and helicopters,” some on their own, some evacuated by the US military. Many more followed, and Thailand was soon swamped. Thailand said it could not handle the flows and was not responsible for them. The initial US evacuation soon became, said Citizenship and Immigration Services, “one of the longest running migration and refugee resettlement programs in the modern era.”
“Whether it was guilt feelings or a moral imperative, we began to resettle them,” Reimers said.
US refugee policy has long been an ad hoc affair, Hollifield said. “We sort of make it up as we go along … The fact is, refugee policy is a function of foreign policy, but also a function of our humanitarian instincts. It is in fact a very messy business.”
Most Iraqi refugees are determined to be resettled to Europe or North America, advocates say. Life in the host countries has become more difficult, they report. Resentment is growing, and most Iraqis are not legally permitted to work.
Resettlement abroad is considered a last resort on humanitarian and foreign policy grounds. Countries in conflict eventually need their people to take part in their own national struggles, some believe. “If we take all the most educated and bright people from Haiti, Haiti’s going to sink into the abyss,” Hollifield said the thinking goes.
For now, refugee organizations are calling for increased US aid to Jordan and even, through back channels, to Syria.
Some contend large-scale resettlement to the United States is unlikely because of anti-immigration sentiment and fear of terrorism.
“Islamophobia may be too strong a word, but there is suspicion at least of Muslims from the Middle East, and at this stage — though this could change — I think people in this country don’t see the United States as being the main cause of the refugee flows,” Newland said. “I would guess they see it more as result of Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence.”
Despite anti-war sentiment, Newland said, “we have not seen as much of an outpouring of sympathy for the innocent victims of this war from Americans, as we did in the aftermath of that terrible photograph of the little girl on fire with napalm (in Vietnam.) Nothing seems to have quite seized the imagination of the American public about Iraqi civilian victims of war in quite that way. Maybe we’re just in the early stages. ”
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