Hard questions: 100,000 Iraqi civilians have died

Michael Cook
8 September 2010
Reproduced with Permission

After seven and a half years, the United States has ended its combat mission in Iraq. Only 50,000 American troops remain there to assist Iraq's Security Forces, support Iraqi soldiers in targeted counter-terrorism missions, and protect American civilians. "Now, it's time to turn the page," President Barack Obama told the nation in an Oval Office address on August 31.

But turning the page to the challenge of a rickety economy should not mean allowing memories of this war to slide into a black hole. There are many questions about the invasion of Saddam Hussein's Iraq, but surely the most important is: was it a just war? This was the question when the war began and it is still the question now. How can we move on without confronting it squarely and honestly?

Back in 2003 there was a fierce debate over whether toppling the repulsive regime of Saddam Hussein could be justified ethically. Pundits debated the four traditional criteria for a just war: success must be probable, the cause must be just, war must be the last resort, and the benefits of victory must be proportionate to the evils of war.

By the end of 2003, we were already in a position to answer the first three of these questions. Had there been a reasonable chance of success? Absolutely. Before, during and after, there was never the slightest doubt about the immediate outcome. On May 1, when President Bush stood on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln under a banner announcing "Mission Accomplished", Operation Iraqi Freedom was an overwhelming victory with minimal casualties for the Allies.

Had it been a just cause? True, the Iraqi people were no longer in thrall to a barbaric dictator - but that was a side-effect of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The main aim of the war had been to defang and dethrone a mortal threat to world peace. But despite Saddam's insane bluster, and to the embarrassment of President Bush and Prime Minister Blair, he possessed no weapons of mass destruction.

Had there been other effective avenues to confront the danger? Probably. Since there was no imminent danger of the deployment of those fabled WMDs, it is conceivable that United Nations sanctions would have eventually toppled the regime without an invasion.

Now that the war is over and we can do a balance sheet of its debits and credits, we also need to apply the fourth criterion: did recourse to arms produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated?

Most of the media coverage of the conclusion of Operation Iraqi Freedom in the past week has failed to face this essential issue. Are the Iraqi people better off?

By some criteria, the answer is Yes. It may be surprising to readers of Western media who shudder at the appalling news of suicide bombers in markets and police stations, but Iraq's economy has improved substantially. The estimated GDP growth in 2009 was 4.5 percent.

Before the war, there were 4,500 internet subscribers in the whole country. In January, there were 1.6 million. Before the war, there were 833,000 telephone subscribers; in January there were 1.3 million landlines and 19.3 million cell phones. Direct foreign investment in 2004 was running at about US$10 million per month. By late last year, it was about $100 million per month.

Iraqi optimism about the future has grown. In February 2009, a survey showed that 84 percent of Iraqis thought that security was "good" or "very good". In the same month, 64 percent thought that Iraq should be a democracy, compared to only 19 percent for an Islamic state, and 14 percent for a "strong leader".

On the debit side of the quality of life ledger, of course, fewer than half of Iraqis are satisfied with their supply of electricity, clean water and medical care. Education and justice are shaky.

But surely the main index of whether Iraqis are better off must be how many perished in the wake of the invasion. The website Iraqi Body Count estimates that between 97,700 and 106,600 Iraqi civilians have died violent deaths since 2003. More than 20,000 of them are still unidentified.

The actual number is disputed, but IBC's figures are based on documented deaths, not statistical estimates. They include only civilians, not combatants. It is probably the most reliable - and conservative -- of all the estimates and has been quoted by relief agencies, WHO, UNHCR, the World Bank and the IMF, the BBC, Economist, and other media. Even the report of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction to the US Congress used its figures.

These numbers are almost impossible for us to grasp in comfortable countries like the US and Australia. A figure of 100,000 Iraqi civilians out of a population of 29 million is roughly equivalent to 1 million Americans in a population of 307 million. A million violent deaths in seven years in the US are simply unimaginable. Only 3,000 people died in the 9/11 attacks and this was the cause of unparalleled grief. For every death in Iraq, there were mothers and fathers and wives and children rent by sorrow and despair.

How can this figure be ignored? As the staff of Iraq Body Count put it in a letter to the British government's inquiry into the lessons of the war:

"One of the most important questions in situations of armed conflict and in the laws of war is whether the use of force has been a proportionate response to the threat that prompted it. It is impossible to establish the wisdom of actions taken - even if in hindsight and without a view to apportioning direct blame - if the full consequences in human welfare are not taken into account. Casualty data are perhaps the most glaring indication of the full costs of war."

For the most part, the invading troops were not directly responsible for these deaths, but the power vacuum after regime change was a trigger for internecine slaughter. These calamities were foreseeable, but the Bush Administration's horizon had only been regime change. After that was a new dawn of free elections and an orderly parliamentary democracy. If this was optimism, it was ignorant optimism. If it was navet, it was reckless naveté.

A soberly-written report from the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction to the US Congress, Stuart W. Bowen, Jr, suggests that the Bush Administration had been negligent in basing its skimpy planning on a "liberation model":

"From the outset, the Pentagon's leadership believed that victory would be swift and that a new interim Iraqi authority would quickly assume power. They planned on Iraq's police providing postwar security and anticipated that Iraqi oil revenues would fund most relief and reconstruction projects. When Iraq's withering post-invasion reality superseded these expectations, there was no well-defined 'Plan B' as a fallback and no existing government structures or resources to support a quick response (page 324)"

Politically, it is too divisive for President Obama to state clearly that the Iraq War was unjust. But somehow, sometime, America's share of responsibility for those civilian deaths must be acknowledged. Until then, the sombre and statesmanlike words in Obama's address last week will be hollow: "Throughout our history, America has been willing to bear the burden of promoting liberty and human dignity overseas, understanding its links to our own liberty and security."

Does anyone really believe that 19 million cell phones are ample compensation for 100,000 civilian deaths?