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Authors of Lancet Study, Middle East Analyst Juan Cole Testify at Kucinich Hearing on Civilian Casualties in Iraq

StoryDecember 15, 2006
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One day before announcing his presidential bid, Ohio lawmaker Dennis Kucinich held a congressional briefing on a topic seldom publicly discussed on Capitol Hill—the Iraqi civilian death toll. Kucinich invited the authors of the recent study that found about 650,000 Iraqi civilians have died in Iraq since the war began, as well as Middle East analyst Juan Cole. We play excerpts. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this week, Ohio Democratic Congressmember Dennis Kucinich announced he’s running for president again. He has accused the leadership of the Democratic Party of not pushing hard enough to end the Iraq War. A day before he announced his presidential bid, Kucinich held a congressional briefing on a topic seldom publicly discussed on Capitol Hill—the Iraqi civilian death toll. To speak, Kucinich invited the authors of the recent study that found about 650,000 Iraqi civilians have died in Iraq since the war began. The study was published in October in the prestigious British medical journal Lancet. The Middle East scholar and University of Michigan professor Juan Cole was invited to speak. Congressmember Dennis Kucinich opened the hearing.

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: We are rapidly approaching the grave number of 3,000 dead U.S. servicemembers. But as painful as that is — and it’s very painful — the estimated 650,000 deaths attributed to hostilities in Iraq is an overwhelming number to comprehend. While it is natural and appropriate for Americans to first focus upon the deaths of American servicemembers in Iraq, it’s astounding to consider that for every servicemember killed, 200 Iraqi civilians have been killed.

According to the United Nations, the population of Iraq was 25 million in 2003, and we have now learned that since then an estimated 650,000 have perished to violence. Now, if such a rate of violence were to be inflicted against the U.S., we would have lost about 7.8 million Americans. Such level of violence is unimaginable, but this is the level of violence that the civilians in Iraq are subjected to.

Consider the massive psychological impact the 9/11 attacks and resulting deaths have had on our nation. Imagine the impact we’d feel as a nation if, over a period of three years, 7.8 million of our citizens died in ongoing, uncontrollable violence. Consider the political impact of violence at that scale. Are we closer to a stable transition in Iraq, or are we closer to collapse? How would we react if this was happening here?

With the help of Congressman Paul, I’ve assembled a panel of experts to help us grasp the civilian situation in Iraq and its impact on Iraq’s society. I hope to explore many vexing questions by leading a discussion with the experts who are here with us today. What confidence do we have in the U.S. administration responses on the number of Iraqi fatalities? Who is getting killed by whom, and why? What does this violence do to the prospects of peace in Iraq? What are the short-term and long-term implications of this massive number of deaths to Iraqi civil society? Will the millions of Iraqi children who have lost a parent ever forgive our country for igniting this violence? How do we make peace with the generations of Iraqis severely harmed by this unnecessary war of choice?

We have to ask these questions. We have to understand what the Iraqi citizenry thinks and feels to understand why this violence has escalated far beyond our control.

Now, I have no doubt that the best course of action for our nation is to extract ourselves from Iraq as fast as possible, while enabling the United Nations to establish a peacekeeping force. Such action would remove our troops from harm’s way, remove the largest impetus for the violence and begin the healing process, which will take decades to complete.

Our president does not seem to understand the necessity to get out of Iraq. Thus, it is imperative that Congress do the one thing the Constitution of the United States provides for: Congress must cut off future war funds and demand that the president use the current funds in the pipeline from the October 1st $70 billion appropriation to bring the troops home.

AMY GOODMAN: Presidential hopeful, Congressmember Dennis Kucinich. Dr. Les Roberts of Johns Hopkins University, one of the co-authors of the Lancet study on Iraqi civilian casualties, also spoke at the briefing.

DR. LES ROBERTS: What if what Gil Burnham just described is correct; that is, what if 600,000 Iraqis have died because of this preemptive venture? Would Congress have approved this had they known in advance?

Can the press pretend they’ve done even a credible job of reporting in Iraq, if they have consistently downplayed the number of deaths by a factor of 10? Can we in academia and in those think tanks around Washington pretend that we add value to discourse in society, if something almost identical in magnitude to the Rwandan genocide could more or less go unnoticed by our society? […]

According to the United Nations, the Iraqi government surveillance network reported exactly zero violent deaths from Anbar province in the month of July, in spite of all the contradictory evidence we saw if we watched CNN. The most widely cited sources — IBC, the United Nations, Brookings — report about 80 percent of all violent deaths coming from Baghdad. And as Dr. Burnham mentioned, Baghdad actually is only about as violent as the nation on average.

So here it is — one-fifth of the country reporting four-fifths of all violent deaths, and we know their rate of violent deaths isn’t any higher than the rest. Something is wrong with those sources.

Similar incompleteness has been noted by the coalition surveillance activities. The Baker-Hamilton report of last week on page 95 said, and I quote, “For example, on one day in July of 2006, there were 93 attacks or significant acts of violence reported, yet a careful review of the reports for that single day brought to light 1,100 violent acts.”

We feel our estimate is by far the best available, in spite of considerable imprecision. We also feel that in terms of understanding the situation in Iraq, in terms of moving forward, it’s important to know, has one in seven houses in Iraq lost a loved one, or one in a hundred, as Iraqi body counts would suggest.

You know, we’re the society that eradicated smallpox from the face of the Earth primarily by setting up surveillance networks, including during really violent conflicts in East Pakistan and Somalia and Biafra. We’re the society that produced most of the medical developments that are taught in medical schools around the world. We gave the world the Internet. As a nation of information excellence, it is, I think, beneath our dignity and, I hope, not in keeping with the compassion of the American people to have U.S. government officials consistently downplaying the number of dead in Iraq by a factor of 10 and 15.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Les Roberts of Johns Hopkins University, one of the co authors of the study. University of Michigan professor and Middle East scholar, Juan Cole, criticized the media’s coverage of the Iraqi civilian casualties.

JUAN COLE: I’ve been dismayed as someone who’s followed these events on a daily basis from the Arabic and Persian press, from Western wire services, from talking to Iraqis on the ground. I’ve been dismayed for the past three-and-a-half years at the way in which the seriousness of this problem was downplayed by politicians in Washington and by the U.S. media, both the print and the television and radio press.

This was a situation that was clearly out of control and very dangerous already in the summer of and fall of 2003, at a time when we were being told by Washington that there was no guerrilla war in Iraq, and it is still being disputed in Washington — in the face of these enormous numbers — that there is no civil war in Iraq. I can’t tell you exactly why the state of constant denial should be with us. I am glad to see that NBC News is now using the words “civil war” and dismayed to see that it’s controversial at this point. I don’t know what else you would call a conflict producing these kinds of casualties, where you have militias attacking one another every day.

And the sheer horror of this war is something that we miss. When it’s reported in the news that 50 bodies were found in Baghdad — do you realize that there’s actually a corpse patrol in the Iraqi police, that this is one of the duties if you’re a policeman, that you get up in the morning and you go around looking for the bodies that are showing up in the streets that day? And the U.N. reports that these bodies show signs of drilling, of chemical exposure, of torture of various sorts, and then typically they have a bullet behind the ear, Mafia style.

And 50, 60 of them every day are showing up in Baghdad, and then more are showing up in places like Baqubah and elsewhere. And even in Mosul now you begin to see some of these statistics emerging.

And this is the tip of the iceberg. It was thrown up against the Lancet report that, well, it implies that there are 500 deaths around the country a day from political and criminal violence. How could that be?

Well, I mean, the news reports that we’re getting, if you consider them to be the tip of the iceberg, if you just think about, well, what are the forces that are producing these results on a daily basis, it’s obvious that only a small number of the deaths that actually occur are being reported in the wire services. I see deaths reported in the Arabic press all the time that never surface in the English-language wire services.

So I agree with Professor Roberts that, you know, a sense of contrition, a recognition of the reality here, of what the actions of the United States have done to an entire country, to — really to a civilization, is in order. And we cannot debate what should be done in Iraq unless we have a clear-eyed vision of what has been done in Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: University of Michigan professor Juan Cole. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. Back to the hearing in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: We continue with the briefing held by Ohio congressmember and presidential hopeful, Dennis Kucinich. He asked University of Michigan professor Juan Cole if he believes the results of the Lancet study are further evidence of a civil war in Iraq.

JUAN COLE: There isn’t any doubt that there is a civil war in Iraq. My colleague at the University of Michigan, David Singer, ran a project on the statistics and correlates of war and developed the most widely used measurement of what a civil war is. And his team specified that if you have multiple — at least two parties contending for power — and in Iraq, you have the Sunni Arab guerrilla movement and you have the Shiite militias — and if they produce a least a thousand casualties of war a year, and if in battles between the insurgents and the central government, the insurgents equip themselves relatively well — and this happens in Iraq — then you have a civil war.

So Iraq is a civil war magnified many times over; by these criteria, many much smaller conflicts have been called civil war by social scientists.

In Iraq, I think we have something that goes beyond civil war. This is one of the great civil conflicts of the past few years. I mean, one really has to go to Cambodia and Afghanistan to find similar sorts of proportional numbers of deaths.

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: Let’s go to a moment with your background and history in the region. You’ve seen the high mortality rates that Doctors Burnham and Roberts talk about with respect to young men. Let’s talk for a moment about the implications of the high mortality rate for young men.

JUAN COLE: Well, the high mortality rate for young men is probably being produced by their having joined these guerrilla groups and militia movements, and they have joined these movements for a number of reasons. First of all, there’s very high rates of unemployment in Iraq. It’s difficult to know exactly what the figure is; anything from 30 to 60 percent is reported. But certainly, there are very large numbers of families that simply have no real source of income. And these militias get funding in various ways — through petroleum smuggling, through antiquities smuggling, through monies coming in from neighboring countries from donors. And so getting a job as a militiaman for a young man is actually a source of income, and many young men who might not otherwise prefer this way of life are forced into it by unemployment and poverty.

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: Well, if you have so many young males lost in a society, how does the loss the young males affect Iraqi society in terms of long-term impact?

JUAN COLE: Well, obviously, this is the cohort that will be the backbone of the society in the future, ordinarily. These are the young people that would go on to lead productive lives, to be workers, to be professionals, and their lives are being lost. In Iraq, which is a relatively traditional society, it is a patriarchal society, women haven’t traditionally been in the workforce very much, so a lot of these young men would have been the breadwinners for their family, as there’s not a strong social security mechanism from the government, so as the head of the household ages, retires, it would be his sons who would be supporting the family. So many families are losing those precise younger men who would bring in an income.

So the implications for throwing large numbers of Iraqis into poverty are very high. Of course, many of the young men who are being killed are already married, so it’s producing widows with children without means of support. Prostitution and various forms of coercion for women have increased as a result. Very large numbers of women have been forced to flee to Jordan or Syria, where they end up working as dancing girls or as prostitutes.

So the situation is really quite horrible for those families that are losing their breadwinners.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Cole said it’s plausible 650,000 Iraqi civilians have died violently in Iraq since the war began.

JUAN COLE: Let me just give you some case studies to show what I’m talking about, because it’s often — the report has been criticized with regard to statistics to reported deaths that appear in the press. I want to emphasize to you that the press just isn’t reporting very many of the actual deaths in Iraq.

For instance, security clearly collapsed in the southern Shiite city of Basra, population 1.3 million, in spring of 2006. Iraqi officials maintained in April that for the previous month, one Iraqi had been assassinated each hour. This is in the city of Basra, one city. These some 750 deaths had gone completely unreported in both the Iraqi and the Western press. If you go back and do a Lexis search for Basra in March and April of 2006, you won’t see any deaths reported at all there.

It is not clear that the al-Maliki government’s deployment to Basra of the 10th Army Division this past summer made much of a difference in the violence, which is committed by militias and tribal mafias fighting turf wars over petroleum smuggling and other sources of wealth. It is entirely possible that the 750 a month are still dying in Basra, but that these deaths are going unreported. Again, if you just look at the daily wire service reports coming out of Iraq, these kinds of deaths for Basra are not being mentioned.

Families are often afraid to draw attention to themselves by publicly reporting deaths in guerrilla violence, and sometimes they’re even afraid to retrieve the body of a loved one from the morgue, lest morgue officials report them to the guerrillas for a bribe.

The estimate given by the Iraqi Health Ministry on November 9th, 2006, of 150,000 Iraqis killed since the war began by — actually, according to what the health minister said, was with regard to deaths caused by Sunni Arab insurgents. He was very specific in the cause of the death that he was announcing. So it wasn’t a global estimate of 150,000. As I understood it, it was from that particular source. So we add in the number of deaths from criminal activity — and there’s quite a lot in Iraq — from Shiite militias, which the Ministry of Health didn’t refer to, and from U.S. military action. Actually, the Health Ministry is probably pretty close to the Lancet estimate, if you extrapolate it out.

Let’s just consider the humanitarian disaster in a place like Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad. This is a mixed region near to Iran with a population of 1.3 million. It has a Sunni Arab preponderance, but it has Shiites and Kurds. In the provincial elections of January 2005, the Sunnis boycotted the polls. As a result, the provincial council consists of 20 Shiites, 14 Sunnis and seven Kurds. The Shiites have the predominance on the council, and they therefore have brought in their guys in the police, in the army and so forth. So the governor and the police chief of Baqubah, the capital of the province, are Shiites. The Shiite-dominated local police have been supported in recent weeks by the 5th Army Division, which is Shiite and commanded by a Shiite officer.

Sunni Arabs have organized local militias in their districts to keep the police and army out. This is being coded as lawlessness by the U.S. press and military, but it is actually a rejection of dominance by the new elected Shiite political elite. And the U.S. military is careful to say that it is not supporting one side or another in the sectarian violence in Diyala; it says we’re just supporting the elected government. Well, as it happens, the elected government is mainly Shiite, so the U.S. military actually is supporting one side.

The reports coming out from Baqubah and Diyala generally through November show a steady drumbeat of violence. On Sunday, November 5th, in response to the announcement of the death sentence for Saddam Hussein, hundreds or perhaps thousands of unarmed Sunni Arab protesters gathered in Baqubah carrying posters of Saddam. They also raised banners criticizing the al-Maliki government. It’s often alleged by the Shiites that Baqubah is a hotbed for al-Qaeda, but here we have the Sunni Arabs showing support for the secular Saddam. Local police fired into the crowd, allegedly killing 20 and wounding 23. These are largely Shiite police firing on Sunni Arab protesters. The Times of Baghdad, al-Zaman, branded the repression a “massacre.”

And most days through November, you find reports like that on November 13th. CBS News reported 50 bodies were found, discarded like trash in Baqubah. On the same day, 40 bodies that had accumulated in the morgue and not been claimed were buried. On November 15th, AP reported that Iraqi police, backed by U.S. forces, discovered the bodies of ten kidnap victims found blindfolded with gunshots in a house in Baqubah.

And then major violence broke out in mid-November. On Saturday, November 18th, Sunni Arab guerrillas in Baqubah attacked a police checkpoint, killing two policemen and wounding two others, and then opened fire on residents — these are Shiite residents — after pulling them from their homes or automobiles. They shot at Shiite seasonal workers returning to Baghdad from orchards in the east of Baqubah, killing eight. In response, U.S. and Iraqi army forces fought the guerrillas for many hours in the street. And again, the Iraqi army that’s been deployed to Baqubah is the 5th Division, which is largely Shiite.

Rocket-propelled grenades and light-arms fire caromed through the city, leaving 18 persons dead and 19 wounded. It was unclear how many of the casualties were guerrillas. On Sunday, the curfew was lifted, but the main street was closed off. The guerrillas still had control over four districts in Baqubah. They attacked another police checkpoint. The police said that in a separate incident, guerrillas loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr set fire to numerous shops in the market in revenge for attacks on their own offices in the city. Al-Zaman’s correspondent in Baqubah — this a major Iraqi newspaper — wrote on Monday, November 20th, that the city, he said, “is living through a powerless security situation. Police patrols disappear from the principal streets early in the day, and various armed groups thereafter have enormous sway.” Reuters reported the same day that a senior police officer who declined to be named said, quote, “There is not a day that passes without dozens of people being killed either from bombs, shootings or assassinations. This has been going on for months.”

And I want to underline that no newspaper or wire service is reporting dozens of daily deaths in Baqubah. That so many are being missed lends credence to the higher estimates for the deaths in the Lancet study. Many days, no deaths at all are reported, sometimes only one or two make the news. But this senior police officer, an eyewitness, maintains that dozens are dying every day.

And this story that I’m telling goes on through November into December. And reports are coming in from little towns around Baqubah; it’s not just the capital. On November 26th, it was reported that police found 21 bodies of Shiites in Balad Ruz, a mainly Sunni city. On November 26th, AFP reported that guerrillas in the small town of Kanaan in Diyala, 12 miles south of Baqubah, kidnapped at least 20 Iraqis of mixed tribe and sect. Usually the kidnapped don’t show back up alive. On November 27th, it was reported in the Arabic press that Sunni Arab guerrillas fought a pitched battle with police in the city of Buhriz near Baqubah, defeated them, chased them out of their headquarters, and set it on fire and completely took over the city. So the guerrillas pushed the police out.

Now, this story that I’m telling you could be told for other areas of Iraq, not just Diyala. The so-called Triangle of Death in Babil province, just south of Baghdad, which includes towns like Yusufiya, Mahmudiyah, Iskandariyah, Latifiyah, see similar kinds of daily grind of violence. A lot of the killing seems to be just people shooting people down. The press tends to favor reports of car bombings, but car bombings produce a relatively small percentage of the deaths. It’s mostly just sniping and gunfire at one another.

News gathering in contemporary Iraq is extremely dangerous and difficult. The collection and publication of social statistics has been affected by the violence and the anxieties that it spawns. Scientifically weighted household surveys are one instrument to supplement the desultory and staccato news reports about casualties in Iraq. It is clear that the level of sectarian violence and reprisals has increased substantially since February of 2006, when Sunni Arab guerrillas blew up the Askariya shrine in Samarra, among the holiest of the sites for the Shiites.

The violence is now being pursued at the neighborhood and clan level, often at night or in dense urban tenements, such that the U.S. military appears unable to stop it. Indeed, the presence of so many U.S. troops in Iraq and the way in which they’re often dragged willy-nilly into sectarian fights, such as Diyala, is probably impeding the natural process whereby Iraqis would be forced to compromise with one another.

AMY GOODMAN: Juan Cole, professor of Middle East studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

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