Testing Iraq Body Count
Earlier this month Media Lens searched the IBC database looking for incidents involving the mass killing of Iraqi civilians by ‘coalition’ forces between January-June 2005. We began by searching for incidents citing a minimum of 10 deaths and above. This seemed reasonable. After all, the New York Times reported in July 2003:
“Air war commanders were required to obtain the approval of Defense Secretary Donald L. Rumsfeld if any planned airstrike was thought likely to result in deaths of more than 30 civilians. More than 50 such strikes were proposed, and all of them were approved.” (Michael R. Gordon, ‘After the War: Preliminaries; U.S. Air Raids in ’02 Prepared for War in Iraq,’ New York Times, July 20, 2003)
We found 58 incidents of 10+ deaths. Of these just one was attributed to a US airstrike:
“k785 08 Jan 2005 2:30 AM Aaytha, near Mosul suspected insurgent hideout, wrong house hit laser-guided bomb dropped by F-16 jet 14 [people killed]” (http://www.iraqbodycount.org/database/bodycount36.php?ts=1137413717)
Of the other 57 incidents listed, 25 were attributed to suicide bombers and a further 29 were attributed to insurgent actions targeting Iraqi government troops, government officials, religious groups, and so on. The few remaining cases described corpses shot at close range, bodies blindfolded and shot, and executed bodies that had been dumped.
In short, out of 58 incidents involving a minimum of 10 or more Iraqi civilian deaths just one was attributed to the ‘coalition’. We then searched for incidents citing less than a minimum of 10 deaths involving ‘coalition’ airstrikes, helicopter gunfire and tank fire, we found three references in the six-month period we examined totalling 15 civilians killed:
“k815 16 Jan 2005 – Samarra civilian vehicle at checkpoint tank fire 4 [killed]” (http://www.iraqbodycount.org/database/bodycount35.php?ts=1137415170)
“k997 13 Mar 2005 – Mosul ‘insurgents’ firing on helicopter, civilians killed in return fire helicopter fire 3 [killed]” (http://www.iraqbodycount.org/database/bodycount30.php?ts=1137415112)
“k1357 19 May 2005 12:00 PM Mosul attack by gunmen on house of National Assembly member Fawwaz al-Jarba, US troops also involved gunfire, helicopter gunfire 8 [killed]” (http://www.iraqbodycount.net/database/bodycount21.php?ts=1137487725)
This struck us as frankly remarkable. In the December 2005 edition of the New Yorker, journalist Seymour Hersh reported a US Air Force press release indicating that, since the beginning of the conflict, the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing alone had dropped more than 500,000 tons of ordnance on Iraq.
In December 2005, Associated Press reported that the US Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps had “flown thousands of missions in support of US ground troops in Iraq this fall with little attention back home, including attacks by unmanned Predator aircraft armed with Hellfire missiles, military records show”. (‘Air Power Strikes Iraq Targets Daily,’ Associated Press, December 20, 2005)
The aircraft included frontline attack planes. The number of airstrikes increased in the weeks leading up to the December 2005 election, from a monthly average of 25 in the first half of the year to more than 60 in September and 120 or more in October and November. The monthly number of air missions grew from 1,111 in September to 1,492 in November.
And yet, when we checked, the first 18 pages of the IBC database, covering the period between July 2005 and January 2006, contained just six references to helicopter attacks and airstrikes killing civilians.
What do these figures tell us about the sincerity and honesty of the IBC editors? Absolutely nothing – it is not at all our intention to challenge their integrity. But there are some important points that need to be made.
First, the dramatic absence of examples of mass killing by US-UK forces suggests that the low IBC toll of civilian deaths in comparison with other studies is partly explained by the fact that examples of US-UK killing are simply not being reported by the media or recorded by IBC. Visitors to the site – directed there by countless references in the same media that have acted as sources – are being given a very one-sided picture of who is doing the killing.
Given that the Lancet reported extremely high civilian casualties from airstrikes and artillery attacks, where are the civilians killed by the vast numbers of US airstrikes in 2005, a year when the insurgency intensified dramatically from 27,000 attacks (mostly targeting US and Iraqi troops) in 2004 to 34,100 insurgent attacks in 2005? The IBC’s own dossier of civilian casualties 2003-2005, reported: “Air strikes caused most (64%) of the explosives deaths”. (Op., cit).
Where are the civilians killed by helicopter fire? By unmanned drones? By tank fire?
We asked independent journalist Dahr Jamail – who has witnessed the violence in Iraq first hand, for example in Falluajh – to check the IBC database and give us his opinion. Jamail replied:
“I just finished having a look at what you suggested… I agree with your findings… there is certainly a heavy bias towards counting deaths caused by suicide bombers/etc. as opposed to deaths caused by occupation aircraft, helicopters and tanks/artillery.
I appreciate and respect IBC in that they have (from the beginning) been making a sincere effort to track the number of Iraqi civilian casualties where almost noone else is… but whether it be from lack of translators or over-reliance on western outlets, they are most certainly under-reporting Iraqi civilian deaths caused by coalition aircraft.
One of the glaring reasons I find for this is lack of adequate Arab media outlets as their sources. They have Jazeera and a few others, but that is all. Meanwhile, nearly all of the other media outlets they use as sources are western, even including FOX!
One of their criteria is that the source must have an English language site… so that is obviously causing a problem for them.
So in sum, this was a long way of agreeing with you. Due to their sources and lack of adequate Arab media in them (who do a much better job of reporting Iraqi civilian casualty counts), it is heavily biased towards western outlets which have from the beginning done a dismal (at best) job of reporting on the air war and consequent civ. casualties.
Dahr” (Email to Media Lens, January 15, 2006)
On January 13, we wrote to IBC co-founder, John Sloboda, Professor of Psychology at the University of Keele:
I have been researching your database in an attempt to find instances of mass killings of Iraqi civilians by US-UK forces in the first half of 2005. I have found almost nothing. I find any number of examples of mass killings
(double figures and upwards) as a result of ‘suicide car bomb’, ‘roadside bomb’, ‘suicide truck bomb’, ‘execution’, and so on – all pointing to killings by insurgents in Iraq – but next to nothing on a similar scale that points to ‘coalition’ airstrikes and ground attacks in these months.
Presumably this is because this loss of life has not been reported by a press that is heavily controlled by, and biased in favour of, the invading forces. Does this not mean your site communicates an unbalanced message on who is dying and who is doing the killing in Iraq? Can you point me to areas of the site that draw attention to this inherent imbalance?
Co-Editor – Media Lens”
Thanks for your question about our work.
Our work is, and has always been, to systematically record civilian deaths reported by two or more recognised media sources which conform to the basic criteria set out in our methodology.
This means that deaths unreported in these media are not in our data base. We have always publicly acknowledged that our numbers must underepresent the true figure. The question of by how much is one that exercises us, as it does many others. An extract from our editorial published at the time of the publication of the Lancet report is extracted below. It still stands good. Our ‘Dossier of Civilian Casualties in Iraq: 2003-2005′ also covers these issues. See:
For the first 6 months of 2005 we have recorded 40 media-reported incidents involving US/UK forces where there were civilian deaths. 92 civilians were reported killed in these incidents, and 94 injured.
We can gladly send you a spreadsheet with these incidents contained within them. Do feel free to ask anything else you need.
These first 6 months of 2005 may be compared to the same months in 2004 when IBC recorded 829-909 civilians killed in incidents where US/UK forces were involved, or 267-293 if the April assault on Fallujah is excluded. Among the 2004 incidents are several mass killings, the largest being the bombing of a wedding party where 42 were killed.
In addition, we have collected stories in our off-line data base of other deaths involving US/UK troops that we have not yet been able to confirm according to our published standards. We keep these incidents under review pending further information, and it is not uncommon for us to add or amend incidents many months after they were first reported.
There are other projects under way in Iraq Body Count which address some of the issues raised here.
Your premise that there have been unreported mass killings caused by the USA in the first half of 2005 is a reasonable one and worth pursuing. If it can be supported by new evidence of specific events, such as those revealed in this Washington Post article regarding events in Husaybah in early November (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/12/23/AR2005122301471_pf.html)
and which is currently in our pipeline, then these events will undoubtedly make it into our database. While our project is an ongoing and continual compilation of reported deaths, it is not unusual for us to add or amend incidents months after they occurred.
John Sloboda.” (Email to Media Lens, January 14, 2006)
Sloboda writes: “We have always publicly acknowledged that our numbers must underepresent the true figure. The question of by how much is one that exercises us, as it does many others.”
But why has IBC not made crystal clear on its website that its figures under-represent the true figure in a particular direction – one that clearly favours the US-UK ‘coalition’? Where are the caveats on the website advising that sources based on a largely Western press reporting on Western armies engaged in a ferocious war are inherently biased against filling in the wrong gaps – the gaps that reflect badly on the West? Why has IBC not mentioned the obvious reluctance of the ‘coalition’ to allow journalists to discover, research and confirm examples of mass killing by US-UK forces? Why has IBC not mentioned the long history of Western media failing to report Western responsibility for suffering and death in the Third World?
Buried deep in a February 7, 2004 press release on the site, ‘Civilian deaths in “noble” Iraq mission pass 10,000,’ IBC +does+ make a passing reference to the reality:
“… is there some unwritten rule by which the combatants killed – particularly the salaried, non-conscript soldiers of the aggressor nations – deserve more care and attention than those innocents – non-combatant men, women and children – whose lives have also been extinguished? If no such rule exists, why is it that on almost any day, a web search of the world’s media will reveal massively more reports and discussion of Western soldiers killed than of Iraqi civilians, even though the reality on almost every day is that far more Iraqi civilians have been killed than Western soldiers?” (http://www.iraqbodycount.org/editorial_feb0704.php)
Why is not this truth, and the structural realities of the corporate media system that lie behind it, splashed across the website, in particular on the homepage? After all, this “unwritten rule” suggests IBC’s reliance on the “professional rigour” of the press (see Part 1) is a fundamental flaw – these are, after all, the same media that supply many of the reports for the IBC database.
Where are the notices advising that the Pentagon has paid millions of dollars to US public relations firms to plant untraceable stories in the Iraqi press? Where are the references to journalists who claim that newspapers and journalists in Iraq are punished, and even attacked, for publishing stories that reflect badly on the US-UK occupation? Veteran BBC broadcaster Nick Gowing said recently:
“The trouble is that a lot of the military – particularly the American military – do not want us there. And they make it very uncomfortable for us to work. And I think that this is leading to security forces in some instances feeling it is legitimate to target us with deadly force and with impunity.” (Cited, Jeremy Scahill, ‘Shooting the messenger,’ February 17, 2005, www.thenation.com)
In its 2005 dossier, IBC noted:
“Current reporting is increasingly undertaken by Iraqi staff working for western media outlets, with Iraqi names now appearing more regularly as authors or coauthors. Western journalists have always relied on Iraqi assistants (drivers, interpreters, etc.). In a very real sense, therefore, the IBC database increasingly depends on the bravery and dedication of Iraqi media workers continuing to risk life and limb to inform the world about the situation in their country.” (http://reports.iraqbodycount.org/a_dossier_of_civilian_casualties_2003-2005.pdf/)
This poses a real problem for the credibility of the database for reasons which should be obvious. Muhammad Hayat, a journalist for the newspaper Baghdad Today, has described threats received by newspapers after they had published articles that offended the US military:
“I can’t make any direct accusations, but it’s an incredible coincidence that threats always followed negative articles.” (‘Iraqis express anger over “covert” US press plan,’ www.irinnews.org, December 19, 2005)
Khalid Samim, of the Iraqi Journalists Association (IJA), added:
“We’ve also received dozens of reports from local journalists and newspapers saying that they have been the victims of threats after they’ve written stories containing evidence against the US military and the Iraqi army.” (Ibid)
Samim reports that the IJA has received more than 80 reports of threats against journalists from confirmed insurgents since the war began, and more than 100 from unknown sources. Threats appeared to target those writing about “government behaviour”:
“We received 22 reports in January alone, and all of [the threatened journalists] had written about politics during the election period. They want us to be blind to the ongoing violence in the country; to write about agriculture or culture instead of about car bombings or the hundreds who have been displaced.” (‘Violence and threats hamper freedom of expression,’ www.irinnews.org, January 25, 2006)
Samir Muhammad, a journalist working for a local newspaper in Baghdad says:
“Journalists are at continuous risk in Iraq, but if we stop reporting, no one will be responsible for showing the world the disasters here.” (Ibid)
We accept that the IBC editors are sincere and well-intentioned. We accept, also, that they have often made clear that their figures are likely to be an underestimate. But we believe they could have done much more to challenge the cynical exploitation of their figures by journalists and politicians. And they could have done much more to warn visitors to their site of the number and type of gaps in their database.
It is ironic indeed, but unsurprising, that IBC is so highly regarded by the mainstream media, while the Lancet report is subject to intense criticism and even rejected out of hand.
It is not rocket science to perceive obvious flaws in the IBC methodology – a glance at the database suggests that Iraqi civilians are somehow immune to the firepower of US jets, tanks, helicopters and artillery. Other studies, and simple common sense, suggest otherwise.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
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