The western media focused on the number of civilians killed in Iraq, but the country’s ill-prepared armed forces suffered far greater losses
All over Baghdad on walls of mosques or outside private homes, pieces of black cloth inscribed with yellow lettering bear witness to the thousands of Iraqis killed in the American-led war. Only if they were officers do these notices make clear whether the victims were soldiers or civilians. As far as Iraqis are concerned all the dead are “martyrs”, whether they fell defending their country or were struck when missiles or cluster bombs hit their homes.
Iraqis argue that in a war launched against their country illegally, every casualty is an innocent who deserves equal mourning. Yet the few western newspapers and human rights groups which have begun to calculate the war’s death toll focus on civilians.
The website – www.iraqbodycount.net – calculates the civilian toll as between 5,425 and 7,041. A Los Angeles Times survey of 27 hospital records in Baghdad and its outlying districts found that 1,700 civilians died in this area.
The bias in these counts may be influenced by the trend of wars in the Balkans, Chechnya and Africa, where civilians were at greatest risk. Evidence from Iraq suggests this war was different.
The Los Angeles Times itself contacted four mosque-based burial societies which reported interring 600 bodies of civilians, and many more of soldiers. Haidar Tari, director of tracing missing persons for the Iraqi Red Crescent, estimated up to 3,000 such undocumented burials, perhaps two-thirds involving soldiers.
Interviews I did with officers and soldiers in Baghdad also suggest the military death toll exceeded the civilian. The imbalance was not as marked as in the first Gulf war when around 3,500 Iraqi civilians were killed, compared with 100,000 soldiers.
In this war no more than 10% died in most units. The resistance American and British forces met as they advanced into Iraq was mainly confined to the first week. After that men ran away in huge numbers.
Lt Col Adel Abdul Jabar commanded an air defence unit on the eastern approach to Baghdad. “We had 250 men moving about in the area manning 57mm anti-aircraft guns. American planes were hitting us day and night. We shot down some cruise missiles and morale initially was high,” he recalls.
After a missile scored a direct hit on an underground bunker killing four soldiers on March 24, three days into the war, many deserted. “We were down to 175 men out of 250 after a week,” he says. On April 4 a cluster bomb landed on part of the air defence force at Doura. “It really frightened the men. A captain, a first lieutenant, and 19 soldiers were killed or wounded. You could not approach the injured because of the unexploded bombs lying on the ground. The wounded were dying where they were.”
The shock caused a new exodus. By April 9 the unit only had 13 officers and one soldier, wounded in the arm. More than 80% had fled. Twenty-five, exactly 10%, had died.
Stationed at the al-Taji airbase north of Baghdad, Private Abbas Ali Hussein was a private in an artillery unit. He and 200 others were ordered to move to the capital’s western outskirts as the Americans approached. Half slipped off on the way or deserted in the first days.
On April 5 US planes attacked. “Seven of our 18 guns were hit in one hour,” says Hussein. “They were in civilian areas on the main road. The others were quickly moved under palm trees. Between seven and 10 of us were killed. Others ran. I experienced bombing as a child but had never been near anything like this. It was terrible.”
Two of his close friends had died and he felt he could not abandon his post. “I thought I had to carry on to avenge them,” he says. Military honour also played a role, plus the fact that his father was a retired army officer and a member of the Ba’ath party. By April 8, when US forces were in Baghdad, he and five others were the only ones left from the unit of 200. Like many other Baghdad soldiers, Private Hussein used to go home during the war for food and clean clothes. The army supplied nothing. Desertions in his unit were at 90%. Around 5% were killed.
One of the biggest battles took place at Baghdad airport. Adel Ali, 29, was with 950 airforce troops guarding the perimeter. There were 1,000 infantry and another 1,000 Republican guards outside the airfield. After US land forces reached it on April 5, he estimates that about a hundred Iraqis died. The death toll was 3%.
To try to stop desertions, soldiers had to sign a declaration saying they understood they would be executed. In practice, no interviewee knew of such cases. Mass desertions affected every unit including the Special Republican Guards, who experts predicted would mount the fiercest resistance. Many were members of Saddam Hussein’s tribe in Tikrit. In fact, they abandoned Tikrit even before Baghdad fell.
Before the war, thinktanks estimated that the Iraqi military had 389,000 men, including 80,000 members of the Republican Guard. Iraq was also believed to have up to 60,000 paramilitaries and 650,000 reservists, though how many of the latter answered the call is unclear.
Extrapolating from the death-rates of between 3% and 10% found in the units around Baghdad, one reaches a toll of between 13,500 and 45,000 dead among troops and paramilitaries. The heaviest fighting took place around Baghdad and in a few places on the route from the south. The overall casualty rate may lie closer to the lower figure.
Postwar calculations are rough, but they are all there is since Iraqi officials kept no tally. The US also avoided the issue. “We don’t do body counts”, said General Tommy Franks, the US commander.