Iraqi Army Toll a Mystery Because No Count is Kept


By John M. Broder

International Herald Tribune
April 2, 2003

The world knows with some precision how many American and British soldiers have been killed so far in the war in Iraq: 77 as of Tuesday. The names of the dead and the cause of their deaths are scrupulously reported by Washington and London, with some delay to notify their families.

But how many Iraqi soldiers have died? It could be scores, hundreds, even thousands. No one outside of Iraq — and probably no one there, either — knows. And, as in the first Gulf War and in Afghanistan, the American military is not counting.

U.S. officials say that numbering the enemy dead in the midst of battle is dangerous and ultimately fruitless. They say it is not a statistic that interests them. They speak in terms of ‘‘degrading'' or ‘'attriting'' enemy military formations, so they can assess the strength of the force opposing them. They count destroyed tanks and artillery pieces and missile launchers. They count captured weapons. They do not count people, civilian or military.

‘‘You know, we don't do body counts,'' General Tommy Franks said a year ago in response to reports that American bombing killed 1,000 Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters during the Afghan campaign of 2001-2002.

Even if allied commanders were curious about the number of enemy dead, the Iraq conflict presents a host of challenges. The Iraqi fighting force takes numerous forms: regular Republican Guard units in uniform, paramilitary forces, volunteer brigades and a variety of irregular fighters who carry weapons but do not wear uniforms. Coalition forces also consider members of the Ba‘ath Party to be enemy combatants, even if they have not taken up arms.

American and British forces can sometimes estimate the number of enemy casualties in close-in encounters, like a battle Tuesday near Diwaniya, where a Marine officer reported that his unit had killed 90 Iraqi soldiers. British troops said last week they had bombed a Ba‘ath Party gathering in Basra, killing an estimated 200 people. But how many Iraqi soldiers have been killed by the relentless bombing campaign waged against Republican Guard units along the approaches to Baghdad? U.S. planes — including B-2 and B-52 bombers — have dropped thousands of bombs on suspected Iraqi troop concentrations over the last three days. Iraqi forces have been subjected to artillery and rocket barrages in recent days as well. Every day, briefers at Central Command here show high-tech images of buildings in and around Baghdad being blown to bits by America's advanced precision weaponry. Were there people inside? They cannot say.

‘‘We do not look at combat as a scorecard,'' said Captain Frank Thorp of the navy, Central Command's chief military spokesman. ‘‘We are not going to ask battlefield commanders to make specific reports on enemy casualties. It's very helpful to have a summary of the battlefield two or three tanks destroyed but it's too time-consuming and, frankly, too risky to scour the battlefield to get some sort of enemy casualty counts.''

‘‘Body counts'' got a bad name in Vietnam, where officers inflated casualty figures to win promotions and make their units look good. Often, the bodies were of innocent villagers. American officers have learned that no figures are vastly better than bad figures. After the first Gulf War in 1991, estimates of Iraqi dead ran as high as 100,000, although the U.S. military never produced official or unofficial figures. Two years after the war, a Defense Intelligence Agency analyst concluded that as few as 1,500 Iraqis had died, based on a high desertion rate before the fighting began and the small number of bodies found after American troops overran Iraqi positions in Kuwait.

‘‘Ultimately, the numbers are not knowable,'' Thorp said. ‘‘And besides, that number may not be an indication of anything.'' Officials here say that the aim of the Iraq campaign is not to kill as many enemy combatants as possible. Rather, they seek to topple the government of Saddam Hussein. They would prefer to do it with a minimum of bloodshed and property damage, to make the task of rebuilding the country and Iraqi society easier.

The British have adopted the American approach. ‘‘We don't do head counts,'' said Group Captain Al Lockwood, a British military spokesman, ‘‘and we certainly don't publicize them.'' Iraqi officials do not release estimates of their own troops killed, although every day they produce figures on civilian deaths and injuries from allied bombing and other military action. That figure is now above 500. On Monday, that number grew by between 7 and 10 people after soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division opened fire on a van carrying civilians that failed to stop at a checkpoint.

A group of professors and peace activists in England and the United States is trying to compile credible accounts of civilian deaths and keep an updated estimate of the total at a web site called The group's current figure, based chiefly on media reports, is between 493 and 652, which is not much different from the tally from the Iraqi Information Ministry.

United States officials insist that they make every effort to avoid civilian deaths and note that 90 percent of aerial weapons used are precision-guided. That does not include battlefield weapons such as tank guns, rocket launchers and machine guns.

Brig. Gen. Vince Brooks, the deputy director for operations at Central Command, blames most of the civilian deaths on tactics of the Iraqi government. He said the Iraqis place military equipment in civilian neighborhoods and religious sites, and use women and children as human shields.

‘‘The blood is on the hands of the regime,'' General Brooks said at a briefing today. ‘‘If there's a question of morality, it really should go back to the regime.''

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