Nicolas J S Davies

A collection of published articles and letters to policymakers regarding the crisis in United States foreign policy by Nicolas J S Davies.

Location: North Miami, Florida, United States

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Estimating civilian deaths in Iraq - six surveys

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Since I wrote Burying the Lancet Report . . . and the Children (Online Journal) in December, a number of people have asked me, “What about the other surveys that produced lower estimates of civilian deaths than the Lancet report?” The appearance of inconsistency between different surveys has led most news organizations to adopt the phrase “tens of thousands” when speaking of civilian deaths.

In this article, I hope to clarify the apparent inconsistencies between these different surveys. Six distinct groups have conducted and published surveys of civilian deaths in Iraq since the invasion. These surveys were conducted at different points in the conflict and with different methodologies, and it is important to understand exactly what each of them was attempting to count and when. Some were actual counts, which inevitably tend to underestimate deaths in war zones, while others used statistical methods to overcome this problem. Some counted only civilians killed by actual acts of war and some counted all violent deaths, while the Lancet report estimated total excess deaths from all causes resulting from the war.

Iraq Body Count Website

When President Bush recently spoke of 30,000 civilians killed in Iraq, his press secretary said that he was citing “published reports.” Directly or indirectly, what he was probably citing was Iraq Body Count. But I Iraq Body Count’s database is not intended as an estimate of total deaths. Its methodology is to record only war-related violent deaths that are reported by at least two approved international media sources. This generates a record of deaths that is accepted by the media that publish these reports in the first place. Its authors acknowledge that thousands of deaths go unreported in their database, but they say they cannot prevent politicians and the media misrepresenting their figures as an actual estimate of deaths. Iraq Body Count’s “minimum” number now stands at about 34,000.

The People’s Kifah Survey

Six months after the invasion, an Iraqi group called the People’s Kifah mobilized hundreds of academics and volunteers who “spoke and coordinated with grave-diggers across Iraq, obtained information from hospitals and spoke to thousands of witnesses who saw incidents in which Iraqi civilians were killed by U.S. fire.” Unfortunately they were forced to abandon the project when one of their researchers, Ramzi Musa Ahmad, was seized by Kurdish militiamen, reportedly handed over to U.S. forces, and never seen again. However, after only a month or two’s work, the People’s Kifah had already gathered evidence of at least 37,000 violent civilian deaths by October 2003.

The Iraq Living Conditions Survey

This survey was conducted by the Ministry of Planning and Development Cooperation of the Coalition Provisional Authority in April and May 2004 and was published in May 2005 by the U.N. Development Program. The “UNDP” imprimatur and the large sample size gave credence to its reassuringly low figure of about 24,000 “war deaths.” Tony Blair’s biographer John Rentoul told me that, in his opinion, this survey was definitive. However, its estimate of war-deaths was derived from a single question posed to families in the course of a 90-minute interview on living conditions, and the Norwegian designer of the survey has said that this number was certainly an underestimate. More than half of the deaths reported were in the southern region of Iraq, suggesting that it captured deaths in the initial invasion rather than in the violence that followed. In any case, after the invasion itself, the period covered by this survey was one of relative calm, and the two years of increasing violence that have followed are unaccounted for.

The Lancet Report

In September 2004, an international team of epidemiologists conducted a “cluster sample survey” of excess civilian deaths caused by the war in Iraq, comparing the pre-invasion and post-invasion periods. Their results were published in the British medical journal, the Lancet. They estimated that at least 100,000 Iraqi civilians had died in the previous 18 months as a result of the invasion and occupation of their country. This included additional deaths from heart attacks, strokes, infectious diseases and car accidents as well as from violence. However, they found that “violence accounted for most of the excess deaths and air strikes from coalition forces accounted for most violent deaths.”

The authors of the Lancet report made the conservative decision to exclude the much higher death rate they found in a cluster in Fallujah from their results, effectively leaving Anbar province out of the survey altogether. Including this data would have resulted in an estimate of 285,000 deaths. They, therefore, had a high degree of confidence in their conservative estimate of at least 100,000 total excess deaths from all causes, and in their statements attributing the majority of violent deaths to coalition air strikes. The Lancet report remains the most comprehensive study of mortality in post-invasion Iraq, but its authors' calls for additional studies to clarify its findings and for a reduction in air strikes have both been ignored.

Iraqi Health Ministry Reports

When Tony Blair was asked about the Lancet report in December 2004, he responded that, “Figures from the Iraqi Ministry of Health, which are a survey from the hospitals there, are in our view the most accurate survey there is.” In fact, the Iraqi Health Ministry reports, whose accuracy he praised, confirmed the Lancet report’s conclusion that aerial attacks by coalition forces were the leading cause of violent civilian deaths. Nancy Youssef of Knight Ridder wrote about one such report on September 25, 2004, under the headline “U.S. Attacks, Not Insurgents, Blamed for Most Iraqi Deaths.”

The Health Ministry began counting civilian deaths inflicted by coalition and resistance forces, as reported by hospitals, in June 2004. In the three months from June 10 to September 10, it counted 1,295 civilians killed by U.S. forces and their allies and 516 killed in “terrorist” operations. Health Ministry officials told Ms. Youssef that the “statistics captured only part of the death toll,” and emphasized that aerial bombardment was largely responsible for the higher numbers of deaths attributable to coalition forces.

BBC World Affairs Editor John Simpson reported on another Health Ministry report that covered the six months from July 1, 2004, to January 1, 2005. This report cited 2,041 civilians killed by U.S. and allied forces versus 1,233 by “insurgents.” Then something strange but sadly predictable happened. The Iraqi Health Minister’s office contacted the BBC and claimed that the figures had been misinterpreted; the BBC eventually issued a retraction; and details of deaths caused by coalition forces have been notably absent from subsequent Health Ministry reports.

Iraqiyun Survey

Iraqiyun is an Iraqi humanitarian group headed by Dr. Hatim Al-Alwani and affiliated with the political party of Interim President Ghazi Al-Yawir. It released its report on July 12, 2005, making it the most recent survey to date. It counted 128,000 actual violent deaths, of whom 55 percent were women and children under the age of 12. The report specified that it included only confirmed deaths reported to relatives, omitting the large numbers of people who have simply disappeared without trace amid the violence and chaos.


Violence against civilians by Iraqi government and resistance forces has increased since most of these surveys were conducted. The U.S. air war has also intensified, especially during assaults on Fallujah and other towns in Anbar and Salahuddin provinces, and since the last few months of 2005. The U.S. Air Force acknowledged conducting about 290 air strikes in November and December 2005, compared with a total of 200 in the eight months between January and August.

More U.S. soldiers have died in Iraq during the period since the Lancet report was conducted in September 2004 than in the period it covered, and there is every reason to think that the same must be true of civilians. If, like the Lancet report, we are speaking of all civilian deaths that have resulted from the war, it is, therefore, now accurate to speak in terms of hundreds of thousands rather than tens of thousands. The results of the other five surveys, taken each in their own context and collectively, are entirely consistent with this conclusion.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

What is the U.S. Role in Iraq's Dirty War?

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The annual U.S. State Department report on human rights for 2005 has acknowledged that the governing institutions created by the United States in Iraq are engaged in an organized campaign of detention and torture.

The State Department report found, “Police abuses included threats, intimidation, beatings, and suspension by the arms or legs, as well as the reported use of electric drills and cords and the application of electric shocks.”

A U.N. human rights report issued last September also found evidence of extrajudicial executions, “Corpses appear regularly in and around Baghdad and other areas. Most bear signs of torture and appear to be victims of extrajudicial executions . . . Serious allegations of extrajudicial executions underline a deterioration in the situation of law and order . . . Accounts consistently point to the systematic use of torture during interrogations at police stations and within other premises belonging to the Ministry of the Interior.”

Dr. John Pace, who wrote the U.N. report, has now left Iraq, and reports that 23,000 people are currently imprisoned in detention centers where torture is rife, and that at least 80 percent of them are innocent of any crime.

These reports acknowledge what a small number of journalists have been reporting for at least two years, that a brutal “dirty war” has grown out of the fertile soil of the U.S. occupation. On March 15, 2004, the New Statesman published an article by Stephen Grey, titled “Rule of the Death Squads,” about the murder of Professor Abdullatif al-Mayah in Baghdad on January 19, 2004, 12 hours after he had appeared on Al-Jazeera to denounce the corruption of the Iraqi Governing Council.

Grey quoted a senior commander at the headquarters of the U.S.-installed Iraqi police, “Dr. Abdullatif was becoming more and more popular because he spoke for people on the street here. He made some politicians quite jealous . . . You can look no further than the Governing Council. There are political parties in this city who are systematically killing people. They are politicians that are backed by the Americans and who arrived to Iraq from exile with a list of their enemies. They are killing people one by one.”

On January 16, 2005, USA Today reported on the work of Isam al-Rawi, a geology professor who heads the Iraqi Association of University Lecturers. He had been cataloging assassinations of academics in occupied Iraq and had documented 300 of them by the time of the article. He was unable to identify a clear pattern to the killings, except that, like Professor al-Mayah, the victims were usually the most respected and popular members of their universities and their communities.

The killing of academics has continued, and the minister of education stated recently that 296 faculty and staff members at universities in Iraq were killed in 2005. The Brussels Tribunal on Iraq has forwarded a list of murdered academics to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Summary Executions, noting that the victims were from different ethnic, religious and political backgrounds, but were mostly vocal opponents of the U.S. occupation.

On January 14, 2005, Newsweek reported on “The Salvador Option,” the proposed use of death squads as part of the U.S. strategy to subdue the country. A U.S. military source told Newsweek, “The Sunni population is paying no price for the support it is giving to the terrorists. From their point of view, it is cost-free. We have to change that equation.” This source was expressing quite precisely the rationale that lay behind the dirty wars in Latin America and the worst abuses of the Vietnam War. The purpose of such a strategy is not to identify, detain and kill actual resistance fighters, but rather to terrorize an entire civilian population into submission.

The exile groups who began this dirty war in the early days of the occupation have come to form the core of successive governing institutions established by the United States. Their campaign of killing and torture has evolved and become institutionalized and their victims now number in the thousands. The State Department and U.N. reports do not address the possibility of a direct U.S. role in the campaign, but the Interior Ministry units that are most frequently implicated in these abuses were formed under U.S. supervision and have been trained by American advisors. The identities of their two principal advisors only reinforce these concerns. They are retired Colonel James Steele and former D.E.A. officer Steven Casteel, and they are both veterans of previous dirty wars.

In El Salvador between 1984 and 1986, Colonel Steele commanded the U.S. Military Advisor Group, training Salvadoran forces that conducted a brutal campaign against the civilian population. At other stages in his career, he performed similar duties during U.S. military operations in Cambodia and Panama. After failing a polygraph test, he confessed to Iran-Contra investigators that he had also shipped weapons from El Salvador to Contra terrorists in Nicaragua, leading Senator Tom Harkin to block his promotion to Brigadier General. Until April 2005, Steele was the principal U.S. advisor to the Iraqi Interior Ministry’s “Special Police Commandos,” the group most frequently linked to torture and summary executions in recent reports.

Steven Casteel worked in Colombia with paramilitaries called Los Pepes that later joined forces to form the A.U.C. in 1997, and have been responsible for most of the violence against civilians in Colombia. Casteel is now credited with founding the Special Police Commandos in his capacity as senior advisor to the Iraqi Interior Ministry.

Assigning responsibility for atrocities to particular units or individuals is complicated by the dual nature of the Iraqi security forces, which take orders both from their nominal superiors and from separate chains of command in the factional militias that most of them belong to. Ultimate responsibility for abuses is thus blurred by the fiction of the “government” and the militias as distinct entities, when the same people are really involved in both all the way to the top.

However, reports of torture and extrajudicial killings have followed the Special Police Commandos around the country wherever they have been deployed, from Anbar province and Mosul since October 2004, to Samarra in March 2005, to areas around Baghdad since April 2005. The U.N. report highlighted 36 bodies found near Badhra, close to the Iranian border, on August 25, 2005, who were identified by relatives as men who had been arrested by Interior Ministry forces in Baghdad.

A second group of 22 young men whose bodies were found near Badhra on September 27 had been arrested in Baghdad on August 18. Fifty police vehicles full of Special Police Commandos swept through the Iskan neighborhood early that morning seizing young men from their homes. At their funeral, the cleric declared “They took them from their bedrooms. We blame the government, which came to save us from Saddam’s terrorism but has brought terrorism worse than Saddam.”

After Special Police Commandos were first deployed in Baghdad in April, 14 farmers were found in a shallow grave on May 5, 2005, with their right eyeballs removed and other signs of torture, after they were seen being arrested at a vegetable market. Another incident 10 days later, in which eight bodies were found in a garbage dump, prompted Hareth al-Dhari, the secretary general of the Association of Muslim Scholars, to accuse the Interior Ministry directly. “This is state terrorism by the Ministry of Interior,” he claimed. The defense minister responded by blaming “terrorists wearing military uniforms.”

Then there is the work and tragic death of Yasser Salihee, the Iraqi physician turned journalist, who dared to launch an investigation into abuses by the Special Police Commandos. Knight Ridder posthumously published his work under the title “Sunni men in Baghdad targeted by attackers in police uniforms” on June 27, 2005. The cautious language of the report verged on irony, but it described eyewitness accounts of numerous abductions by “large groups of men driving white Toyota Land Cruisers with police markings. The men were wearing police commando uniforms and bulletproof vests, carrying expensive 9-millimeter Glock pistols and using sophisticated radios.”

Knight Ridder interviewed Steven Casteel for their story. He blamed the killings on “insurgents” impersonating commandos. As the article pointed out, this raised “troubling questions about how insurgents are getting expensive new police equipment. The Toyotas, which cost more than $55,000 apiece, and Glocks, at about $500 each, are hard to come by in Iraq, and they’re rarely used by anyone other than Western contractors and Iraqi security forces.”

Faik Baqr, the director of the central morgue in Baghdad, would only tell Knight Ridder, “It is a very delicate subject for society when you are blaming the police officers . . . It is not an easy issue. We hear that they are captured by the police and then the bodies are found killed . . . it’s obviously increasing.” Mr. Baqr recently fled the country after receiving a succession of death threats. Dr. Pace, the U.N. human rights officer who visited the Baghdad morgue regularly, has said that sometimes as many as 80 percent of the bodies in the morgue showed signs of torture.

Yasser Salihee was shot by a U.S. sniper on his way to get gas to drive his family to a swimming pool on his day off. His editor in Washington, Steve Butler, told me he had no reason to think Yasser’s death was connected to his work, and the U.S. Army’s account of the incident described a “random” shooting based only on rules of engagement that greatly prioritize American over Iraqi lives. However, as Italian investigators found in the case of Nicola Calipari, U.S. accounts of such incidents are not reliable, and U.S. links to the forces Dr. Salihee was investigating cast a dark shadow over his death.

The Iraqi death squads have also killed an American journalist. Steven Vincent was an award-winning art critic from New York who went to Iraq as a freelance writer for National Review, The Wall Street Journal & Harpers, and wrote a book, In the Red Zone, about the experiences of Iraqis living under occupation. On July 29, 2005, he wrote in an op-ed piece in the New York Times that many of the police in Basra were also active in Shiite militias that had killed hundreds of Sunnis in the city. Four days later, he was abducted by a group of men in a brand new white Chevy pick-up with police markings. His body was found by the side of a road outside the city with three gunshot wounds to the chest.

In recent weeks, U.S. forces have freed prisoners from Interior Ministry prisons and rescued a Sunni prisoner en route to his execution. U.S. officials have made strong statements condemning human rights abuses by their Iraqi allies. It appears that the “Salvador Option,” like so many U.S. policies born of ignorance of local conditions in Iraq, has spun out of control to the point that U.S. officials now feel obliged to restrain it. Or, as so often in the history of U.S. covert action, different factions in the bureaucracy of the occupation may actually be working both with and against the death squads, making an absurdity of any singular explanation of U.S. policy.

Iraqis question whether the chaos unleashed on their country by the United States is the result of incompetence, as most Americans assume, or of a more sinister and deliberate design to destroy their country and society. In fact, setting aside the privatized paradise of Western investment envisioned by a few neoconservative dreamers, U.S. goals in Iraq are fairly limited and don’t have much to do with the people of Iraq at all. They can be summarized as “lily pads” (U.S. bases) and oil, and a “government” in the Green Zone to legitimize access to both. The fate of the Iraqi people is only a major concern to U.S. policymakers to the extent that it threatens to impact these primary goals.

Viewed from this perspective, the reactive twists and turns of U.S. policy in Iraq since March 2003 make a lot more sense: abandoning all but the oil ministry to looting; failing to “reconstruct” anything but the Green Zone and U.S. bases; the alternating marginalization and rehabilitation of different political and sectarian figures and groups; the seemingly counter-productive collective punishment and brutalization of the population; and, underlying everything, the political division of the country along sectarian and ethnic lines and the manipulation of these divisions to prevent the formation of a government that rejects U.S. objectives.

In this context, whether U.S. policymakers realized it or not, a smashed Iraq was always going to serve U.S. goals better than a resurgent, independent Iraq under any government. The dirty war advances U.S. policy by terrorizing the population, as explained in the Newsweek article, but also by transforming nationalist resistance into internecine conflict between Iraqis, leaving U.S. forces secure in their bases. Indeed, U.S. casualty figures have fallen as Iraqi casualties have increased since the bombing of the Golden Dome in Samarra three weeks ago.

Assassinations of academics, doctors and local leaders and the resultant exodus of the professional class deprive the country of the intellectual and political resources that might arrest the slide into chaos and impotence. Iraqi novelist Haifa Zangana wrote in an op-ed piece in the Guardian, “For the occupation’s aims to be fulfilled, independent minds have to be eradicated. We feel that we are witnessing a deliberate attempt to destroy intellectual life in Iraq.”

Should the U.S. permit the dirty war to escalate further, whether by miscalculation or simply as the best option in terms of its primary goals, the history of U.S. military and covert operations in other countries suggests that the U.S. will then escalate its own violence beyond all previous restraints. The U.S. Air Force has reported that air strikes intensified in late 2005 from 25 to 145 strikes per month, and U.S. Special Forces Command is redeploying AC-130 Specter gunships to Iraq, an ominous sign of what is to come. Rumsfeld wants his lily pads and the oil companies want their oil, and what U.S. soldiers see when they look out beyond the walls of their “crusader castles” is of secondary importance to U.S. policy. The tragedy for the people of Iraq is that, whether this policy ultimately achieves any of its goals or not, they will continue to be its victims.