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Iraq: Mounting Civilian Casualties Underscore Coalition Struggle

  • Sergei Danilochkin

The mounting coalition casualty count in Iraq has cast a shadow on continued U.S.-led efforts to restore security some five months since Washington declared an end to major combat operations. But the country's civilian death toll -- which some estimate may be nearing 10,000 -- receives far less attention.

Prague, 30 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Ongoing violence in Iraq is continuing to take its toll on Iraqi civilians as well as U.S.-led coalition troops.

A total of 357 U.S. and British soldiers have been killed in both combat and noncombat deaths since the beginning of the war to depose Saddam Hussein. Some 2,300 Iraqi fighters are estimated to have been killed in and around Baghdad.

But some observers estimate that more than 9,000 Iraqi civilians have died as a result of the U.S.-led campaign -- a campaign based in part on sophisticated precision weaponry meant to minimize needless casualties. And civilian casualties have continued to mount as sporadic fighting and guerrilla attacks replace the more traditional warfare of the campaign's early weeks.

A U.S. military spokeswoman, Lieutenant Kate Noble, said U.S. troops have been carefully trained in dealing with the civilian population in order to avoid unnecessary casualties. "We operate at all times within the laws of armed conflict and we do not directly and deliberately target civilian infrastructure," she said. "Any planning for any operations takes into account the need to minimize civilian casualties. Every one of our troops [was fully] aware of the rules of engagement. Civilian casualties, unfortunately, will occur in a situation of high-intensity and low-intensity conflicts. While we do everything that we can to minimize those, the fact of nature is that they will occur."

Coalition forces are not tracking civilian casualty figures in Iraq. They say it is too difficult to keep such information accurate and up-to-date. Critics accuse the coalition of attempting to minimize bad publicity in an already extended and difficult war. They also say civilian death counts could ultimately help the military to improve troop conduct and reduce future casualties.

But Noble said the coalition does investigate civilian deaths when events warrant, and is attempting to work more closely with Iraqi authorities. "We conduct investigations very frequently and very thoroughly," she said. "We take any allegations of errors very seriously. And any reports that do come in, we investigate them fully and often times they would be released to the public when requested."

Humanitarian activists, however, say they are not satisfied by such efforts. They say the coalition still regards civilian casualties as inevitable collateral damage.

Hamit Dardagan is a researcher with Iraq Body Count (http://www.iraqbodycount.net), an Internet project attempting to track Iraq's civilian casualties. Dardagan's group uses Western press reports to tally Iraqi civilians killed since the beginning of military operations in April -- a number that Iraq Body Count now puts between 7,352 and 9,152. Deaths are only recorded once they have been confirmed by two separate news sources.

Dardagan said the coalition's decision not to track civilian casualties is meant to spare it political discomfort as sporadic fighting continues unabated. "It's an embarrassment to [the coalition governments and military command], and it's, of course, the kind of information that is unhelpful to the rhetoric of politicians about humanitarian intervention and about liberating Iraq and making the country better for Iraqis," he said. "I think that probably it's just uncomfortable information, something they'd rather not talk about."

Occupation opponents are questioning the tactics and weapons used by coalition troops in the restive country. Dardagan said combat units are trained to use overwhelming firepower to suppress the enemy -- a strategy that can prove efficient on a battlefield but dangerous in cases of urban warfare or guerrilla attacks. "It's all [the coalition] was talking about [at the beginning of the war] -- precision weapons. But if you are having a ground war situation, then it's not much different from World War II," he said. "You have armored vehicles, you have tanks, and you have heavy-caliber machine-gun fire. So these are pretty much not precision weapons in this sense at all."

Military experts say that guerrilla attacks on coalition convoys and patrols have left troops tense and prone to responding hastily and sometimes too aggressively. Marcus Corbin, an analyst at the Center for Defense Information in Washington, told RFE/RL that rules of engagement are meant to limit soldiers' response options. But he said such guidelines do not apply in all situations.

"I think that some level of casualties is inevitable in a situation where you have numerous daily attacks on the U.S. soldiers. They are going to be pretty jumpy and are going to be shooting quickly. There are rules of engagement. And they may vary by unit, by area and so on. But in a life-or-death situation it is often difficult to make a slow and clear decision about returning fire," Corbin said.

Analysts say the current use of combat troops for routine patrols is far from ideal, because different skills and training are required. Many suggest that using Iraqi police or other authorities would go a long way toward scaling back random violence by smoothing interaction with local populations.

Corbin said reducing the number of firearms possessed by the Iraqi population would also improve the security situation and help troops feel less at risk. He also said the coalition should be certain of its intelligence information before launching air strikes on guerrilla bases and other targets. Last but not least, he suggested that it may be time for the U.S. military to change the way it works.

"The U.S. military needs to greatly improve its training for peacekeeping situations or occupation situations, as opposed to the heavy combat which it is so good at," Corbin said. "I think there does need to be an improvement in the rules of engagement or the broader strategy of U.S. troops in Iraq. Because the bottom line is, if we keep killing innocent civilians, even when firing at legitimate targets, we are going to lose the hearts and minds of the people in Iraq."

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