University of London figures reveal toll of Iraq’s sectarian war

The New England Journal of Medicine is releasing a new study by the University of London based on data from Iraq Body Count, finding that sectarian militias were responsible for a full third of killings in Iraq after the 2003 US invasion. The finding that 33% of civilian deaths since the US-led invasion are attributable to armed gangs contradicts previous assertions by the Iraqi government that foreign military operations were responsible for the majority of deaths.

“On average for example, an air strike will kill 17 people—the majority of those killed will be women and children—but the number of air strikes recently has been quite small, whereas the number of executions has been very large,” said John Sloboda of Iraq Body Count. “There are enough incidents now available for us to be able to do these analyses which show very clearly that air strikes have the most indiscriminate effect on civilian population, but the number of individual incidents is greatest for executions and small arms fire.” (AlJazeera, April 18)

An AP account provides a breakdown of the figures:

The study covered the period from the March 20, 2003 invasion through March 19, 2008, in which 91,358 violent deaths were recorded by Iraq Body Count.

The total number of civilian deaths in Iraq is widely disputed, but the count by the London-based group is widely considered a credible minimum.

Apart from media reports, Iraq Body Count uses figures from morgues and hospitals since the war started.

However, the authors focused on only 60,481 deaths linked to specific events, excluding Iraqis killed in prolonged episodes of violence during the U.S.-led invasion and the U.S. sieges of the former insurgent stronghold of Fallujah in 2004.

The study found that 19,706 of the victims, or 33 percent, were abducted and killed execution-style, with nearly a third of those showing signs of torture such as bruises, drill holes or burns.

That compared with 16,922, or 27 percent, who died in bombings, most of them in suicide attacks.

Predictably, focuses exclusively on the finding that demolishes the dangerous fiction of “surgical strikes”:

In a report to be published in tomorrow’s issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers have concluded that air strikes by US-led coalition forces have killed mostly women and children. 39 percent were children, while 46 percent were women.

Not a word here about the report’s central findings—that a plurality of the civilian killings were by sectarian militias. This is because the anti-war left is wedded to its own dangerous fiction—of a two-sided war in which a liberation struggle confronts a foreign occupier. The figures reveal what we have been arguing for years: that the Iraq conflict is a multi-sided sectarian civil war. (Actually, figures have revealed this before.)

Here’s what NEJM says in its May 16 press release on the study, entitled “The Weapons That Kill Civilians — Deaths of Children and Noncombatants in Iraq, 2003–2008”:

The greatest proportion of victims — 19,706 of 60,481, or 33% — were killed by execution after abduction or capture. Of the bodies of those who were executed, 5760, or 29%, showed marks of torture, such as bruises, drill holes, or burns. (A typical media report about this particularly appalling form of violent death reads: “The bullet-riddled bodies bore signs of torture and their hands were tied behind their backs.”) Iraqi civilians also suffered heavy tolls from small-arms gunfire in open shootings and firefights (20% of deaths), apart from executions involving gunfire, and from suicide bombs (14% of deaths).

In events with at least one Iraqi civilian victim, the methods that killed the most civilians per event were aerial bombings (17 per event), combined use of aerial and ground weapons (17 per event), and suicide bombers on foot (16 per event). Aerial bombs killed, on average, 9 more civilians per event than aerial missiles (17 vs. 8 per event). Indeed, if an aerial bomb killed civilians at all, it tended to kill many. It seems clear from these findings that to protect civilians from indiscriminate harm, as required by international humanitarian law (including the Geneva Conventions), military and civilian policies should prohibit aerial bombing in civilian areas unless it can be demonstrated — by monitoring of civilian casualties, for example — that civilians are being protected.

We second that, but the report is just as harsh on the so-called “insurgents”:

Suicide bombers in Iraq are mainly used strategically by sectarian or insurgent forces, with deployment at targets after apparently coordinated planning. Although the bomb’s blast is undiscriminating, the individual bomber is not. A suicide bomber on foot acts as a precision weapon — a close-quarters “smart bomb” whose pattern of killing many civilians at a time can result only from either disregard for civilians when targeting opposition forces or direct targeting of civilians. When combatant forces intentionally target civilians, they commit a war crime and violate international humanitarian law pertaining to both international and civil armed conflicts.

Executions by the insurgents are more telling still:

By nature, execution is precise and deliberate — the highly controlled, usually planned killing of a captured person. The character of this form of killing…supports the assessment that executions have been applied systematically and strategically to civilians in Iraq.

Iraq Body Count now puts the total of violent civilian deaths since the invasion at between 91,466 and 99,861. But it makes clear:

The count encompasses non-combatants killed by military or paramilitary action and the breakdown in civil security following the invasion.

Nonetheless, sloppy anti-war propaganda continues to treat the figure as one of Iraqis directly killed by the US military. This same error is often made with the more questionable findings of a Johns Hopkins University team of 100,000 killed since the invasion back in 2004 (which we deconstructed here). The most hideous irony is that this error is frequently made (intentionally, we judge) by those who support Iraq’s mass-murdering “insurgents.” It was already obvious the sectarian militias (“insurgents”) were responsible for the bulk of the killings back in 2005, when we had reason to note regarding the Johns Hopkins findings:

So those who cite this figure as representing directly US-inflicted casualties while simultaneously cheering on the Iraqi “resistance” engage in the most disingenuous of numbers tricks—actually attributing deaths by the forces they support to the forces they oppose.

US atrocities in Iraq are all too real, but a single-standard and ruthlessly honest approach to the question of civilian casualties is the only one which serve as effective anti-war propaganda.

See our last posts on Iraq, the sectarian civil war, and the body count.

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  1. Insurgency or sectarian war?
    You tell us. From the New York Times, April 23:

    80 Are Killed in 3 Suicide Bombings in Iraq
    BAGHDAD — At least 80 people died and 120 others were injured Thursday in three bombings, one by a female suicide bomber in Baghdad who, Iraqi officials said, held a young child’s hand as she set off her explosives among a group of women and children receiving emergency food aid.

    The second suicide bombing struck a restaurant filled with Iranian tourists in a restive city north of the capital.

    The number of people killed in the attacks is the largest single-day total since February 2008.

    The blasts come just as Iraq has announced the arrest of “insurgent” leader Omar al-Baghdadi. Of course, the conspiranoids will be quick to point out that over a year ago, he was reported dead.

  2. Insurgency or sectarian war?
    You tell us. From CNN, April 24:

    Two days of mass killings in Iraq; many victims Iranian
    BAGHDAD — Suicide bombers killed 60 people near a holy Shiite shrine in Baghdad on Friday and a car bomber left seven people dead in Diyala, according to security and medical officials.

    Along with the 60 dead, many of whom were Iranian pilgrims, at least 125 others were wounded when two female suicide bombers struck on roads leading to the Imam Musa al-Kadhim shrine, one of the holiest in Shiite Islam, the Interior Ministry said.

    The Iranians who were killed and wounded were on a pilgrimage to holy sites in Iraq, an Interior Ministry official said.

    The bombers hit the Kadhimiya neighborhood of Baghdad, where the shrine is located, on the Muslim day of prayer. Iraqi State TV reported that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has ordered an investigation.

    For those who are paying attention, there is a sense of deja vu here.

  3. New body count
    From AP, April 24:

    At least 87,215 Iraqis killed in violence since 2005, Health Ministry says
    BAGHDAD – At least 87,215 Iraqis have been killed in violence since 2005, according to a government tally.

    Combined with tallies based on hospital sources and media reports since the beginning of the war and a review of available evidence, more than 110,000 Iraqis have died in violence since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

    The Health Ministry death tally counts deaths from the beginning of 2005 until Feb. 28. It excludes thousands of people who are missing and civilians buried in the chaos of war without official notice.

    The figure includes only violent deaths – people killed in attacks such as shootings, bombings, mortar attacks and beheadings. It excludes indirect factors such as damage to infrastructure, health care and stress that caused thousands more to die.

  4. Insurgency or sectarian war?
    You tell us. From the New York Times, April 30:

    BAGHDAD — A series of bombs went off in Baghdad on Wednesday, extending a period of violence that has rattled Iraq’s government and security forces.

    The pattern of Wednesday’s attacks — including three car bombs in predominantly Shiite areas and two at a Sunni mosque — raised fresh concern that sectarian passions could be inflamed anew.

    Accounts of the death toll varied, from at least 17 people to as many as 48, with dozens wounded. So far in April, at least 300 Iraqis have been killed in bombing attacks, making it the bloodiest month since the start of the year and reversing the sharp drops in civilian deaths in January and February.

  5. Insurgency or sectarian war?
    You tell us. From BBC News, May 21:

    At least 23 people, including three US soldiers, have been killed in a series of deadly bombings in the Iraqi cities of Baghdad and Kirkuk.

    In the deadliest attack, a suicide bomber struck at a market in Baghdad’s Dora district, killing 12 people, including three US soldiers.

    The Kirkuk blast targeted members of the Awakening Council, a US-allied Sunni militia, killing eight people.

    A third bombing inside a Baghdad police station killed three recruits.

    The attacks come a day after at least 40 people were killed in a car bomb attack in north-western Baghdad.

  6. Insurgency or sectarian war?
    You tell us. From the New York Times, June 1:

    Iraq: Bomb at Baghdad Market Kills 4
    A bomb exploded Monday at a bustling market in the southern Baghdad neighborhood of Dora, killing 4 people and wounding 14, security officials said. It was the third time in a month that a market in the neighborhood had been bombed. May was the least violent month since the Iraqi government started compiling such statistics, with 165 Iraqis killed in violence, but the attacks in Dora led residents to question the government’s ability to provide security as American forces withdraw from the city.

  7. Insurgency or sectarian war?
    You tell us. From AP, June 8:

    Iraq: Bombing of minibus in Shiite area kills 9
    BAGHDAD — A bomb tore through a minibus during morning rush hour Monday in a mainly Shiite area in Baghdad, killing at least nine people and wounding 24, Iraqi officials said.

    The blast was a grim reminder of the major challenge facing Iraqi forces three weeks ahead of the June 30 deadline for U.S. troops to withdraw from urban areas.

    The bomb was attached to the minibus in the southern area of Abu Dshir, a Shiite enclave in the mainly Sunni neighborhood of Dora, police said.

  8. Insurgency or sectarian war?
    You tell us. From the New York Times, June 10:

    Iraqis Attack Police After Bombing
    BAGHDAD — A rare car bomb near the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriya killed at least 28 people at an outdoor market, provoking a near riot among survivors who began stoning the police, blaming them for lax security.

    Police officers in Al Batha, a town about 25 miles west of Nasiriya, dispersed the angry crowd by firing randomly, wounding at least one protester, witnesses said.

    The governor of Dhi Qar Province, where the bombing occurred, immediately dismissed Al Batha’s chief of police, Lt. Col. Assad Hussein, for negligence, according to Abdul Husain Shenawa, director of the province’s media office.

    There were conflicting accounts of the death toll, with an official at the provincial health department putting the number at 28 dead and 70 wounded, and warning that the toll might climb.

    The official spoke on the condition that he would not be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the press. The Associated Press said the death toll had reached 35.

    It was the first such bombing directed at civilians near Nasiriya, a largely Shiite city, in the past two years, according to Ali Hosseini, another media department official. There have been internal clashes in the area between armed Shiite factions.

    Iraqi officials blamed Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, a largely Iraqi group with some foreign leadership. Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi said, “Targeting the cities, especially those which witnessed stability for several years, is nothing but a desperate attempt from Al Qaeda and former regime members to bring back disorder, to discredit our achievements in security and to reflect on the readiness of our armed forces.”

  9. Insurgency or sectarian war?
    You tell us. From BBC News, June 20:

    ‘Many dead’ in Iraq truck bombing
    At least 64 people have been killed by a suicide truck bomb near the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, Iraqi police say.

    About 160 others were injured in the blast, which happened near a Shia mosque in Taza, officials said.

    At least a dozen nearby mud-brick homes were flattened by the explosion, and the mosque also was badly damaged.

    The latest attack comes days before US forces are due to withdraw from towns and cities in Iraq, leading to concerns that violence could escalate.

    “This ugly crime is an attempt to harm security and stability and spread mistrust of the Iraqi forces,” Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki said in a statement.

    Just hours before the attack, he had promised the withdrawal would go ahead as promised, calling it a “great victory”.

    See our last post on the struggle for Kirkuk.

  10. Insurgency or sectarian war?
    You tell us. From AP, June 22:

    BAGHDAD — Bombings and shootings killed more than 30 people across Iraq on Monday, including high school students on their way to final exams, part of a new round of violence ahead of next week’s deadline for U.S. troops to withdraw from urban areas.

    The attacks pushed the three-day Iraqi death toll over 100, shattering a recent lull and adding fresh doubt to the ability of government forces to protect people without U.S. soldiers by their sides. American combat troops have already begun moving from inner-city outposts to large bases outside Baghdad and other cities.

    OK, never mind for the moment the appalling standards for what constitutes a “lull,” and the implicit assumption that US is “protecting people” rather than fueling the fire. Just look at the facts being reported here and you tell us—is this an “insurgency” or a sectarian war?

    Monday’s violence mainly struck Shiite neighborhoods in the Baghdad area, starting with a roadside bombing of a minibus carrying high school students from Sadr City to their final exams.

    Police said the attack killed at least three students and wounded 13 people. The U.S. military said only one civilian was killed and eight wounded. Conflicting casualty tolls are common following bombings in Iraq because victims are often taken to multiple hospitals.

    The bus was pockmarked with shrapnel, with blood-soaked notebooks and ID cards left on the seats and the floor.

    Of the several other attacks that day mentioned in the account, some were on security forces (not, primarily, US occupation forces); the big majority on civilians—including a blast at a “public market in an impoverished, predominantly Shiite area northeast of Baghdad, killing five people and wounding 22…”

    So you tell us: Is this an insurgency or a sectarian war? We’re waiting.

  11. Insurgency or sectarian war?
    You tell us. From Reuters:

    Bomb kills 72 in Iraq on eve of US pullout
    A bomb has killed at least 72 people at a market in eastern Baghdad’s volatile Sadr City slum, six days before US combat troops are due to withdraw from Iraqi towns and cities.

    About 127 people were wounded by the blast in the mostly Shiite Muslim area in one of Iraq’s worst attacks this year, police said.

    A witness said the explosion tore through a part of the Mraidi Market where birds are sold, setting stalls ablaze.

    OK, all you cheerleaders for the supposed Iraqi “resistance”—the silence is deafening. We’re waiting for an answer.

    Yeah, that’s right, were talking to you. And you. And you. And you. And you. And you.

    C’mon guys, speak up. We can’t hear you.