When the 1,000th U.S. soldier was killed in Iraq earlier this month, more than a few commentators in the international online media took note of another death toll: Iraqi civilians.
"While so much is made of the 1,000 US military fatalities," said a columnist for Gulf News in the United Arab Emirates, "an eerie silence surrounds the tally of Iraqi casualties since the invasion."
Live, 1 p.m. ET: washingtonpost.com's Jefferson Morley will discuss his online column and international media.
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"Silence" is perhaps too strong a word. Many news organizations have run stories about civilian deaths in Iraq. But overseas reporters and commentators emphasize the issue more than their American counterparts and play up civilian casualties in ways the U.S. media rarely pursue. After recent U.S. bombing raids on Fallujah, al-Jazeera.net published graphic photos of wounded children that are unlikely to appear in a U.S. news outlet.
While American journalists can say, correctly, that definitive statistics on civilian casualties are hard to come by, the true number is certainly a multiple of U.S. casualties, according to Human Rights Watch. In a 2003 study, the New York-based watchdog group said "thousands" of Iraqi civilians had been killed or wounded in the three weeks between the invasion and the fall of Baghdad.
Human Rights Watch cited two other attempts to quantify the dead. The Los Angeles Times did a survey of 27 hospitals in the Baghdad area after the U.S. invasion and found that at least 1,700 civilians died. In June 2003, the Associated Press canvassed 60 of Iraq's 124 hospitals and calculated that at least 3,420 civilians died in the first months of the war. AP described the count as "fragmentary" and said, "the complete toll -- if it is ever tallied -- is sure to be significantly higher."
Since then, other figures have been floated. Commentators for the Jordan Times and the Daily Star in Beirut, Lebanon, have cited an estimate of 30,000 deaths. That is the figure disseminated by the Iraqi Human Rights Organization, an independent group in Baghdad.
A more conservative figure comes from Iraqbodycount.net, a British Web site that compiles media reports on Iraqi civilian deaths. Based on such reporting, the site says there have been a minimum of 12,778 civilian deaths in Iraq and a maximum of 14,820.
Reporters in Iraq do not need a statistic to tell them that civilian deaths are common but difficult to accurately report. Patrick Cockburn, Baghdad correspondent for London's Independent, wrote this week that "the truth about who is being killed by the US air strikes is difficult to ascertain exactly because Islamic militants make it very dangerous for journalists to go to places recently attacked. Bodies are buried quickly and wounded insurgents do not generally go to public hospitals. But, where the casualties can be checked, many of those who die or are injured have proved to be innocent civilians."
Last week, Cockburn noted that "the US was claiming to have precisely hit insurgents in Fallujah while Iraqis were watching pictures on television of an ambulance gutted from the air in which a driver, paramedic and five patients died."
At the same time, the Iraqi insurgents are also killing civilians, forcing the issue of which is more newsworthy. There is no one right answer.
In a Sept. 17 report on the fighting in Fallujah, Associated Press reporter Kim Housego mentioned the deaths of women and children in the first sentence. That story was picked up by washingtonpost.com and many other U.S. news sites. The coverage in overseas sites like the state-run China Daily and the Straits Times in Singapore also led off with the civilian deaths caused by U.S. forces.
But that same day a suicide car bomber killed five Iraqi civilians in Baghdad. A staff-written story in the print edition of The Post the next day opened with an anecdote about that attack. The civilian deaths caused by the U.S. military were not mentioned until the seventh paragraph.
Andrew MacLeod, columnist for the Age in Australia, pointed out last month that Iraqi civilians were also dying violently under Saddam Hussein's regime.
MacLeod cited estimates that the former dictator "killed between 500,000 and 1 million of his own people in the 13 years since the Gulf War, not including the effects of the sanctions." Thus, he argued that the former Iraqi leader might have "killed between 53,445 and 106,890 innocent people" in the 500-plus days since he was deposed. Those numbers far exceed the minimum and maximum figures provided by iraqbodycount.net, he noted. He concluded that the U.S.-led invasion was justified because it "probably cost between 38,938 and 92,383 fewer lives than the so-called peace would have cost."
Michael Jansen of the Jordan Times used a lower estimate of Baath party abuses and a higher estimate of Iraqi civilian deaths in the past 18 months to reach the opposite conclusion. He says the "Bush occupation" is killing twice as many Iraqi civilians per month as the Hussein regime.
But no matter which news sources you read or how you play with the numbers, the consensus of international commentators is that the U.S. military may have replaced Saddam Hussein as the biggest threat to Iraqi civilians.