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, AntiWar.com 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.