Escalating bloodshed

Published : Aug 12, 2005 00:00 IST

A policeman inspects the remains of a suicide car bomb that exploded targeting an American convoy southeast of Baghdad on July 16. - ALI AL-SAADI/AFP

A policeman inspects the remains of a suicide car bomb that exploded targeting an American convoy southeast of Baghdad on July 16. - ALI AL-SAADI/AFP

The inability of the American-led occupation forces or the government they have put in place in Baghdad to provide even basic security has led to total disillusionment among ordinary Iraqis.

A REPORT released by an independent group - the Iraq Body Count Project - has concluded that 25,000 Iraqi civilians were killed since the American occupation of Iraq began two years ago. The figures were compiled from Iraqi and international media reports. The report has held the American-led occupation forces responsible for 37 per cent of the deaths. The Iraqi resistance forces have been held responsible for 9 per cent. A further 36 per cent of the civilian deaths were blamed on criminal groups, which have multiplied since the fall of the government led by Saddam Hussein.

The Iraq Body Count Project, which co-authored the report with the Oxford Research Group, has come to the conclusion that the Iraqi civilian deaths were the "forgotten cost" of the Bush administration's decision to wage war against Iraq. Many Iraqis, however, are of the opinion that the death toll of civilians has in fact been underestimated. The British medical journal Lancet had put the figure of civilians killed at 100,000 until September 2004. Swiss researchers in a recent report have said that out of the 100,000 killed, 39,000 were civilians. According to the report, they were killed after the start of the American invasion.

The figures put out by the Iraq Body Count Project may have erred on the conservative side as they had to depend exclusively on media reports. Western media personnel rarely venture out of the sanctuary of the high-security "Green Zone" in the capital Baghdad. Many of the civilian deaths have gone unreported, both in the Iraqi as well as in the Western media. There is still no accurate estimate of the civilians killed during the American military assault on the city of Falluja. Researchers from the Johns Hopkins University and Columbia University, along with researchers of the Al-Mustansiriya University in Baghdad, have also put the civilian toll at 100,000 since the invasion began.

According to the report, on an average 34 Iraqis have died violent deaths every day since the start of the invasion in March 2003. John Sloboda of the Iraq Body Count Project said that the data collected showed that every sector of Iraqi society was affected by the American occupation. The American and British governments have refused to give the number of Iraqi causalties. "We don't do body counts," American Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had said when queried by the media about Iraqi and Afghan civilian casualties in the carpet bombing of those countries by the United States Air Force.

The dead in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos as a result of American bombings and use of chemicals such as "Agent Orange" have still not been officially accounted for, though it is common knowledge that a tab is kept on civilian casualties in all theatres of war that the American Army is engaged in. The Americans killed in action in Iraq are accounted for and duly honoured.

However, in July, more Iraqi civilians have been killed as a result of suicide bombings and sectarian killings than by American firepower. Before that, many of the Iraqis who were targeted for killing were soldiers in the new Iraqi army or people wanting to join the American-trained Iraqi security and paramilitary forces. In the first fortnight of July, three continuous days of suicide bombings left 150 people dead. In this period there were 40 suicide attacks, which claimed the lives of 269 Iraqis, mainly civilians.

Al Qaeda, in an Internet statement, said that the bombings were aimed at liberating Baghdad from American occupation. One of the most devastating explosions was in the Shia-dominated town of Musayyib on the banks of the Euphrates. The explosion, in the second week of July, killed more than 100 civilians. Most of the bombings have taken place in the so-called "triangle of death" in the centre of the country. The Sunnis, who remain un-reconciled to American occupation or rule by proxies, dominate this area. Among those killed in the spate of attacks were three prominent Sunnis who were part of the committee to draft Iraq's new Constitution.

The inability of the American-led occupation forces or the government they have put in place in Baghdad to provide even basic security for the people has led to even greater disillusionment among ordinary Iraqis. Suicide bomb attacks have averaged one a day since the formation of the new Iraqi government in April. The Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the senior-most Iraqi Shia cleric, whose support was important for the formation of the interim Iraqi government, has described the recent spate of suicide bombings as a "genocidal war". Sistani has been a moderating influence on his followers so far, urging them not to respond to provocations by those intent on sparking off an all-out sectarian strife. All the same, there are reports that secretive Shia militias have started revenge killings. Baathists and officials of the former government have been targeted.

Moqtada al Sadr, the young radical Shia cleric who led an armed uprising against the Americans in the holy city of Najaf last year, has said that the escalating violence was a direct result of the presence of American forces in Iraq. "The occupation in itself is a problem. Iraq not being independent is the problem. And the other problems stem from that - from sectarianism to civil war, the entire American presence causes this," Sadr told the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in a recent interview. A senior American military official serving in Iraq, Major-General Joseph Taluto, recently admitted that "good, honest" Iraqis are fighting American forces. Taluto told Gulf News that he could understand why some ordinary people would take up arms against the U.S. military because "they're offended by our presence".

Even as the killings and bloodshed increase, some Iraqis are busy trying to give the finishing touches to the new Iraqi Constitution. The deadline for the Constitution to be approved by the Iraqi Parliament is August 15. If approved, it will be then put to vote in a referendum on October 15. Iraq's next parliamentary election, under the new Constitution, is scheduled for December 15. There is, however, a provision for the deadline for the new Constitution to be extended by another six months. The Americans and the Iraqis currently in power in Baghdad fear that a delay in the elections will give a further fillip to the armed resistance.

The three main groups in the country - the Shias, the Sunnis and the Kurds - are trying to hammer out a compromise document that would safeguard their interests. The Kurds and the Shias are in favour of a loose federal set-up. The Kurds want to retain the kind of autonomy they enjoyed in parts of Iraq under American protection since the early 1990s. The Shia parties want control of the oil resources in the south. The Sunnis participating in the Constitution-drafting process have expressed fears about the unity of the country if "special status" is given to the Kurds and concessions are made to the majority Shias.

ANOTHER important event was Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari's landmark trip to Iran in mid-July. The Shia parties, which currently dominate the government in Baghdad, are known to be close to Teheran. Jaafari, in fact, spent many years in exile in Iran when Saddam Hussein was in power. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, did some plain-speaking with the Iraqi Prime Minister. Khamenei told him that the presence of American troops was "doing much harm to Iraqis and people of the region". The Iranian government had earlier called for the withdrawal of all American troops from Iraq.

Interestingly, during the Iraqi Prime Minster's visit to Iran, it was announced that the two countries would cooperate closely in the fight against terrorism. The Bush administration had been alleging that Iran was facilitating the movement of terrorists into Iraq through its long and porous borders. The Iranian side also called for the speedy trial of Saddam Hussein for precipitating the eight-year-old war between the two countries, which claimed the lives of more than a million Iranians and Iraqis. Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi said that his country would "provide all necessary evidence and documents to the special court for the trial of Saddam". Iran, like many other countries in the region, strongly believes that Saddam waged the war against Iran at the instigation of the U.S. government. The Iranians could provide more tangible proof of American complicity if and when Saddam's trial begins. It is scheduled to begin later this year.

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