When is a murder not a "murder"? When it's progress in Iraq

The military claims progress in Baghdad by excluding car bombings, suicide attacks and roadside bombs from its murder count.

Published September 12, 2006 1:00PM (EDT)

At the end of August, U.S. Army Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV -- last heard suggesting that concrete blast walls in Amariya have created "what some may call the semblance of a gated community" -- announced that new security operations in Baghdad had been so successful that the city's average daily murder rate had dropped by 46 percent in just a month.

We were puzzled when figures from the Baghdad morgue showed only a 15 percent drop in the number of violent deaths it saw in August. But we're not puzzled anymore. As the Associated Press reports, Caldwell was able to come up with such a low number of "murders" in Baghdad in August by simply excluding from his count people killed by "bombs, mortars, rockets or other mass attacks -- including suicide bombings."

So what counts as a "murder" in the tally Caldwell announced? Only death by drive-by shooting, torture or execution.

U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Barry Johnson tells the AP that Caldwell used such a narrow definition for the August body count because "murders and executions" are "a key indicator of sectarian-related violence." That may or may not be true; tell the family of a Shiite civilian killed by a Sunni suicide bomber that his death doesn't count as a "murder," and explain to us why it's not a "key indicator of sectarian-related violence." But, as the AP notes, nobody gave any indication at the time of Caldwell's announcement that the military was claiming progress in Baghdad by counting the death toll so narrowly. Caldwell, the AP says, "did not make the key distinction that the rate he was referring to excluded a significant part of the relentless daily violence that tears through Baghdad."

Asked for for further details about the real Baghdad death toll or the trends the military was seeing, Johnson refused to elaborate on the ground that doing so would provide "our enemy information they need to adjust their tactics and procedures to be more effective against us." As it turns out, it looks like they don't need the help.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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