Iraqi civilians wiped out -- does U.S. care?

Published September 21, 2004 10:40PM (EDT)

It's become conventional wisdom, cited by pundits on both the left and the right, that if reelected, the Bush administration will launch an offensive against Fallujah and other insurgent-held cities in Iraq. If that's the case, thousands of innocent Iraqis will almost certainly soon be dead.

Recently, the American press has been full of stories about the more than 1,000 U.S. troops killed in Iraq. There's been far less attention, though, paid to thousands of Iraqi men, women and children killed during the American occupation. They're being cut down by Iraqi insurgents -- but also by the American counterinsurgency, which has taken to bombing and strafing densely populated areas, tactics virtually guaranteed to kill innocents.

"The U.S. military's disregard for civilian life is breathtaking," writes Juan Cole, Middle Eastern history professor, Iraq commentator and widely read blogger, in an email. "They routinely bomb residential neighborhoods to get at militiamen, killing women and children. Often the U.S. press doesn't even report the bombings!"

The American military doesn't keep track of civilian casualties, and reliable figures are hard to come by. George Lopez, a senior fellow at Joan B. Kroc Institute at the University of Notre Dame, who has been diligently researching the civilian toll in Iraq, says he trusts the numbers on the Iraq Body Count website , which estimates that at least 12,800 and as many as 14,843 Iraqi civilians have been killed during the war and occupation.

Run by a team of researchers based in Britain, Iraq Body Count has been opposed to America's war in Iraq from the start. But Lopez says the site has consistently been conservative in its calculations. "If they are erring in any direction, it's probably in underestimating," he tells Salon. "They've worked on a very strict methodology on needing to have double collaboration on numbers of deaths" -- collaboration that's difficult to obtain in rebel-held and war-ravaged areas like Fallujah and Ramadi.

Washington Post reporter Jefferson Morley cites Iraq Body Count's relatively "conservative" estimates in a roundup Tuesday of international press coverage of Iraq casualties. He notes that "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."

Morley also quotes Patrick Cockburn of the London Independent, who writes: "The truth about who is being killed by the U.S. 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."

According to the Financial Times, another British paper, thousands of such civilians have been killed in just the last few months. "From April 5 to September 12, slightly over five months, 3,186 Iraqi civilians, men, women and children, died as a result of either terrorist incidents or in clashes involving U.S.-led multinational forces," the paper reports.

The rise in civilian deaths, however, has practically fallen on deaf ears in the American media. "What has changed demonstrably in at least in the last month is that international coverage of this has increased while U.S. coverage of this has decreased," says Lopez. "It's not only most of the Arab world, but Europe and Latin America are also seeing the footage of these bombings. I don't think I've seen footage in the U.S. coverage all week. I have a friend in Stockholm who emailed me and said, Aha, you're starting to destroy cities in order to save them.'"

This weekend, the London Sunday Times ran a story by Hala Jaber about the human costs of the American bombings. Describing a strike on suspected followers of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi near Fallujah, Jaber wrote, "That many militants had died was beyond doubt. It was equally obvious from the casualties at Falluja general hospital that women and children had also been killed and injured. In one ward, Fatima Taha Shneiter, 8, lay on a bed, her hair and clothes covered in mud. A large area of flesh below her right knee was missing and the bone protruded. She moaned, repeating the words, There is no Allah but Allah,' over and over again."

According to the story, "She did not yet know that much of her extended family had been wiped out, including her father, Taha Shneiter, and at least three of her uncles. Her mother, Jinan, and sister Shaimaa, 6, were in a coma. Only her youngest brother, Mohamed, 4, had escaped injury."

Do such stories even register with Americans? By way of analogy, Lopez points out, Americans turned against the war in Vietnam because they thought we were losing -- not because they thought it was immoral. Only a vocal minority, he says, worried about the atrocities being inflicted on Vietnamese civilians. "We had moments after the Tet Offensive where the public was willing to get out," he says. "But Nixon won in a landslide because he promised peace with honor."

By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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