The Pentagon said yesterday that it has no plans to determine how many Iraqi civilians may have been killed or injured or suffered property damage as a result of U.S. military operations in Iraq.
The statement followed passage Saturday of a congressional measure calling on the Bush administration to identify and provide "appropriate assistance" to Iraqi civilians for war losses.
The congressional action stopped short of requiring military forces to conduct a formal assessment of all individuals who may have suffered from the war, as some human rights activists have sought. But it made clear that Congress supports compensating innocent Iraqis to buttress U.S. claims that the war was not directed against the Iraqi people and that U.S. forces tried to avoid civilian deaths and destruction of civilian property.
The measure was contained in the final version of the $78.5 billion emergency spending bill to cover war-related expenses. The money for compensating civilians is to come out of a $2.5 billion relief and reconstruction fund that also is intended to pay for food, water, health care, transportation and other needs.
In language from a Senate-House conference agreement, lawmakers explained their intention that the State Department and the Agency for International Development, coordinating with the Pentagon and nongovernmental organizations, "seek to identify families of non-combatant Iraqis who were killed or injured or whose homes were damaged during recent military operations, and to provide appropriate assistance."
The provision was inserted in the bill by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) in the final day of negotiations, according to congressional sources. Similar language was included in a 2002 supplemental spending bill covering costs of the war in Afghanistan and in the 2003 omnibus appropriations law passed earlier this year.
"Innocent civilians have suffered grievous losses," Leahy said in a statement yesterday. "As we help rebuild Afghanistan and Iraq, we should do what we can to assist the innocent, to show that we were not at war against them and that the United States does not walk away. It is the right thing to do, and it is in our own national interest."
Timothy S. Rieser, who works for Leahy on the foreign operations subcommittee of the Appropriations panel, stressed that the conferees did not intend to create a formal claims process or saddle the military with an obligation to identify every individual or community that suffered injury. Rather, he said, the aim was to provide resources when there is sufficient evidence that military action caused injuries or serious property damage.
"We're trying to move the ball a bit," Rieser said.
Asked for comment, a Pentagon spokesman issued a two-sentence statement last night taking note of the new funding but saying the department "has no plans" to determine the total civilian casualty toll.
Before its demise, the Iraqi government reported 1,254 civilian deaths as of April 3. The Bush administration has offered no estimates of its own.
"We really don't know how many civilian deaths there have been, and we don't know how many of them can be attributed to coalition action, as opposed to action on the part of Iraqi armed forces as they defended themselves," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said in a BBC interview Sunday.
Historically, the Pentagon has not tried to count civilian casualties and losses resulting from U.S. military action. Military officials have given various reasons for this, citing principally the time and resources involved and the difficulty of separating damage caused by U.S. forces from damage caused by the enemy.
But this time, the Bush administration is facing greater pressure to undertake at least some kind of accounting for what military authorities call "collateral damage." Before and during the war, U.S. officials repeatedly stressed the extent to which American forces were trying to avoid civilian losses by employing precision weapons, computerized target planning and restrictive rules of engagement. More than 70 percent of the bombs and missiles used in this war were either satellite- or laser-guided, according to the Pentagon.
"Because this administration has put so much emphasis on the care that it has taken, it would be very difficult for them to avoid coming to some kind of assessment of how they did in this regard," said Sarah Sewall, who served in the Pentagon during the Clinton administration and now directs a study on civilian suffering in war being conducted under the auspices of Harvard University.
Sewall added that it would be "unrealistic" to expect the Pentagon to come up with "a reliable figure" for civilian casualties given the "size, intensity and speed" of the U.S. campaign. But she said investigating at least some incidents would not only bolster U.S. credibility but also contribute to better military planning next time by understanding the actual effects of particular U.S. battlefield decisions.
One Air Force general, asked why the military has not done such postwar accounting in the past, said it has been more cost-effective to pour resources into increasingly sophisticated weaponry and intelligence-gathering equipment.
"The best way of limiting collateral damage is knowing what you're going after and being able to hit what you go after," the officer said.
He suggested that once the Pentagon started down the track of studying collateral damage caused by bombs, it could lead to endless assessments.
"I do wonder if we're going to do this every time the Army fires an artillery shell or every time a Special Forces soldier fires a 50-caliber" gun, he said.
But he also acknowledged the practical value of validating the Pentagon's damage-control models by counting the number of civilians who died.
"Maybe that's our next task someday -- to try to get that kind of information so that we can feed it back into the process," he said.
Another senior military officer noted that during the 1999 Kosovo war, U.S. military officials developed a computer program to track every weapon employed. This assisted peacekeeping troops who later entered Kosovo, providing them with information about what munitions had been dropped where -- and especially what ordnance may not have exploded. The program has been in use in the Iraq war, he said.
"So we now have a better system of tracking every weapon delivered, and if we go into an area, we can assess what's in there, what the potential duds might be and how we're going to go about cleaning them up," the officer said.