Is the United States Committing Genocide in Iraq?

There is a simple rule that defines the U.S. occupation of Iraq: no matter how bad a situation may seem the reality is far worse. Take torture. Individual accounts began surfacing in the fall of 2003 at U.S.-run prisons, but the Abu Ghraib scandal the following spring unmasked a regime of industrial-scale torture. And the torture never ended. The United States just outsourced it to Iraqi security forces. Take the Iraqi dead. By 2004 it was known to be in the thousands, but no one thought, as two rigorous studies found, that some 98,000 Iraqis had died by the fall of 2004 and a mind-boggling 655,000 by June 2006. 


Or refugees. The U.S. military and ethnic militias are known to have caused massive displacement, but few could imagine that nearly 1 in 10 Iraqis would be driven from their homes by the fall of 2007, at least 2.7 million people on top of 2 million refugees from before the invasion. (This is arguably a large undercount as it doesn’t include those who haven’t registered with host countries because they fear deportation.)  


Then there’s “random killings.” New revelations point to how many killings stem from systemic forces. Foreign mercenaries are called the most-hated men in Iraq, but who knew that Blackwater, the most notorious hired gun in Iraq, has been involved in “nearly 200 shootings in Iraq since 2005.” Mercenary killings could number in the thousands as Blackwater’s record does not appear to be out of line with many of the 100 other mercenary outfits in Iraq. The Washington Post reported in June that “one security company reported nearly 300 ‘hostile actions’ in the first four months” of 2007.   



Add to that killing by U.S. forces at checkpoints, on patrol, and during home raids. Now it seems to be policy in some instances. Reports state that commanders pressed troops to rack up “body counts,” despite declamations otherwise. Some snipers were apparently instructed to leave weaponry lying around and shoot anyone who picked it up. One observer commented on the allegation “you might as well ask every Iraqi to walk around with a target on his back.”  


The same logic, of reality being far worse than imagined, applies to virtually every facet of the Iraq War: the reconstruction fiasco, the fuel shortages in a country that sits on an ocean of oil, skyrocketing childhood malnutrition rates, and increasing scarcity of electricity, sanitation, sewage, food, and clean water that far outstrips the sanctions-crippled Iraq of the 1990s.  


Despite this hellish existence for Iraqi civilians, Hilary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama reject a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq before 2013— the end of the next presidential term. By doing this, they are committing to making the Iraq War the longest-running war in U.S. history. That advocacy of a never-ending war couldn’t succeed unless a majority of the public believed GIs are there to protect Iraqis. 


One of the great myths of the Iraq War is that the U.S. military buffers religious and ethnic factions who have been at each others’ throats since time immemorial. There is no basis for this. Yitzhak Nakash, who specializes in the history of Iraqi Shiites, writes, “There is no evidence that would suggest that the Shiites were ever close to forming a majority of Iraq’s population before the 19th or even 20th century.” In a 1994 article entitled “The Conversion of Iraq’s Tribes to Shiism,” Nakash argues “the massive conversion of Iraq’s nominally Sunni Arab tribesmen to Shiism” was driven by a multitude of factors, including “the rise of Najaf and Karbala as the two strongholds of Shiism [and] Wahhabi attacks on the two cities,” the role of the two cities as “Iraq’s major desert market towns…and most importantly, the Ottoman policy of tribal settlement beginning in 1831.”

In other words, the Sunni-Shiite split in Iraq today, while all too real, is in many ways a modern phenomenon. But understanding this complex causality taxes the cognitive functions of mainstream reporters who prefer to lean on the crutch of “ancient hatreds.”  


Such historical ignorance and amnesia underpins Americans’ belief that U.S. forces play a positive role in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere, whether it’s humanitarian intervention in Darfur or imperial intervention in Iran. The belief in military benevolence stretches back in time, premised on whitewashing the slaughter of at least three million in Indochina by the United States, and into the future, by emboldening the political establishment to back a war without end in Iraq.  


What’s curious is that many opponents, a group marked by its loathing of Bush, accept his latest rationale for staying the course: that a “humanitarian nightmare” could result if U.S. forces withdrew. Even more puzzling, those who claim to oppose the war but, nonetheless, support a continued U.S. presence seem to be blind to the nightmare that already exists (like Bush).  


To keep faith that U.S. troops are in Iraq to protect civilians, it is necessary to obscure the level of killing. This not only afflicts mainstream discourse, as many peace activists shy away from discussing the war’s impact, except for how it affects “us.” For example, United for Peace & Justice has easily accessible information on its website about U.S. casualties and the financial costs of the war, but nothing about the extent of Iraqi deaths. 


Even if the scale of killing is acknowledged, it is dismissed as no fault of the Americans because it is really fratricide. Internecine warfare has long been in the news, but as of last year the primary culprit was still the U.S. military. According to a study published in the British medical journal the Lancet in October 2006, some 655,000 excess Iraqi deaths have occurred from the March 2003 invasion to June 2006. 


In 45 percent of the 601,000 violent deaths, the perpetrator was “unknown,” a little over 31 percent was attributed to “the coalition” and 24 percent to “other.” Thus, U.S. and UK forces were responsible for the deaths of around 185,000 Iraqis in a little over three years. Air strikes alone were responsible for about 78,000 deaths. The rate also accelerated such that Iraqis were dying at a rate of “upward of 1,000 per day during the last year of the survey period.” 


A more recent survey was published in September 2007 by ORB, a British polling firm. It surveyed 1,499 Iraqi adults and came up with a figure of 1.22 million dead. At the low end, the Iraqi health minister gave an estimate of 150,000 in November 2006. The minimum tally by Iraq Body Count (IBC), as of October 4, 2007, was 74,689. While IBC performs a valuable function, the notion that it captures a significant portion of the death toll is groundless. The authors of the Lancet study note that other than in Bosnia, “we could find no conflict situation where passive surveillance [such as media reports] recorded more than 20% of the deaths measured by population-based methods.” 

The scale of killing in Iraq raises the question, is the United States committing genocide? The problem is genocide is one of the most-abused words in politics. Many oppressed groups claim genocide is being practiced against them. The usual claim is that the perpetrator is waging cultural genocide, not trying to exterminate a people per se, but their way of life and society.  


Some charge that Israel is committing genocide in Gaza. Certainly, blockades, starvation, and random killings amount to state-sponsored terrorism and a crime against humanity, but it doesn’t meet a narrow historical sense of both intent and attempt to wipe out a whole people based on ethnicity, race, religion, or nationality, such as the Holocaust.  


The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide uses a broader definition, however, listing five separate acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part” any such groups. The Israeli war on Palestinians in Gaza meets at least three of the conditions: “Killing members of the group…causing serious bodily or mental harm” and “Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.”  


This is not merely a rhetorical exercise; raising the term in international bodies compels action to stop it. But stating that killing members of a group with intention of destroying it even in partamounts to genocide, which violent conflict in the world does not rise to this level? Saying every war constitutes genocide makes the term meaningless.  


Yet if a narrow definition is used, one can argue there has been no genocide since the Holocaust against Jews and Roma (two other groups the Nazis targeted, homosexuals and the mentally handicapped, do not fall under protected categories). The two cases most often cited as genocide in recent decades are Cambodia and Rwanda. In Cambodia the killing was clearly political and not based on a protected category—some call it a politicide or democide. Rwanda is seen, correctly, as genocide, but some insist it was a civil war as Hutu or Tutsi were not ethnicities, but groupings imposed by Belgian colonists nearly a century ago on differing social classes. (Naomi Klein writes in her new book, The Shock Doctrine,that “many countries…bar acts of genocide, with definitions that clearly include political groupings or ‘social groups.’” Thus, Rwanda and probably Cambodia would be genocide under such a definition.)  


This question of genocide has dominated the response to the Darfur conflict. In an influential essay published last March titled “The Politics of Naming: Genocide, Civil War and Insurgency,” African scholar Mahmood Mamdani likened the violence in Sudan to U.S.-occupied Iraq, noting that in Iraq “it is said to be a cycle of insurgency and counter-insurgency; in Darfur, it is called genocide.”  


The implication is clear: if Darfur is genocide, then why not Iraq? The short answer is simple and not likely to please anyone. If you use the broad definition under the convention, then yes. But so too are many other conflicts. If a narrow definition is used, then no. There has been no Wannsee Conference where senior U.S. government and military officials plotted out the machinery of mass extermination like a business strategy session.  


In the two countries, Mamdani notes the levels and type of violence, “mostly paramilitaries closely linked to the official military,” are similar. He quotes New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff as offering estimates ranging “from 200,000 to more than 500,000” deaths in Darfur. Yet with a best estimate of 655,000, which was 9 months old when Mamdani wrote his essay, Iraq appears significantly worse.  


Numbers do not a genocide make. Intent is needed. That’s where things get fuzzy (and political). If the standard is loose, “intent to destroy, in whole or in part” of a group, then Iraq is most definitely genocide. But it’s hard to make the case under stricter definitions. Despite this, one case in Iraq, and possibly others, may meet a more rigorous standard: the destruction of Fallujah from April to November of 2004 appears to have been an attempt to intentionally exterminate an entire group. 


In October 2004 the first study on excess mortality in Iraq was published in the Lancet, determining that the likeliest number of deaths at that point was 98,000. The researchers excluded data from Fallujah because it was so out of line with other data from around Iraq. Of the 30 households surveyed in Fallujah, they had experienced 52 violent deaths, all of which can be considered excess because the violent death rate in Iraq before the war was miniscule when spread across the whole population. 


I talked to one researcher, Richard Garfield, a professor at Columbia University, about the data. Because the study was designed on a national basis, he warned against drawing any inference from one specific sample. Still, we did the math. Fallujah had an estimated population of 300,000. The average household in the survey was 7.4 people. This works out to 60,000-70,000 deaths in Fallujah beforeits annihilation in November.

gupta2-Alt-AWhile the Fallujah data is so limited as to make conclusions highly unreliable, Garfield noted there was another way to interpret it. “One could argue there were other communities around the country that were similarly devastated. It wasn’t just an accident that Fallujah had high mortality. It could have been representative of other places around the country. One could argue we should have kept the Fallujah cluster in the study.” 


By the fall 2004, there had been devastating U.S. assaults in Najaf and other Southern cities. In Baghdad, at the same time, U.S. warplanes pummeling the Shiite slum of Sadr City caused thousands of casualties in what looks to be another case of intentional and indiscriminate mass killing. Beyond that, virtually all the Sunni Arab regions have been subjected to waves of extreme violence, particularly starting in 2005, so the effects would not have been captured in the first study. 


I emailed two researchers involved in the 2006 Lancet study, Johns Hopkins Professor Gilbert Burnham and statistician Shannon Doocy. In the second study the excess death rate was 7.8 per 1,000 per year in a population of 27 million, which works out to 655,000 deaths or 2.5 percent of the population. The report stated “the highest death rates [are] much where they would be expected, in the Sunni Arab provinces.” Garfield explained the death rates were highest in these provinces because “that’s where most of the military-reported deaths were occurring.”  


This backs up reports that it is the U.S. war, not Shiite militias (many of which were set up by the Pentagon in any case), that has killed more Sunni Arabs. The U.S. strategy has been to depopulate towns and cities or at least large swaths—Fallujah, Tal Afar, Al Qaim, Ramadi, Samara, and others—through blockades, cutting off food, fuel, and electricity, mass arrests and aerial bombardment. The goal was to turn these towns into free-fire zones where anyone left could be killed, no questions asked.   


In Fallujah, after the first U.S. assault killed more than 600 people in April 2004, but failed to capture the city, the Bush administration subjected it to bombardment for months leading up to the November 2004 razing. When the final assault came, an AP photographer watched entire neighborhoods turned to rubble from bombing so intense civilians were afraid to even step outside—implying many never fled. When he tried to leave the city, he witnessed “U.S. helicopters firing on and killing people who tried to cross the river,” including a family of five. He then walked along the river for two hours and spotted American snipers waiting to shoot anyone who crossed. 


From this and other anecdotal accounts, it looks like there was an intentional policy of wholesale extermination in Fallujah. The decision to treat everyone as a target probably came from the highest levels of the White House and Pentagon. It was not field officers making these decisions.  


With a lack of independent reporting from other towns that the U.S. military turned into battlefields, it’s not known if there is other solid evidence of rampant killing. So I asked the researchers to crunch the numbers for just the four Sunni Arab-majority provinces—Anbar, Diyala, Ninewa, and Salah al-Din.   


In terms of understanding the study, the researchers used a method called “cluster-sample survey.” Garfield says 20 to 25 are needed “to get a representative sample,” but they choose 50 clusters to give added precision. Iraqi surveyors sampled 40 houses in each cluster, which were spread around the country.   


I asked them to check the 13 clusters for the Sunni Arab provinces. They cautioned a smaller sample meant a larger margin of error. It appears that the excess death rate for the four Sunni Arab provinces is twice the national rate of 7.8—15.5 per 1,000 per year. 


If accurate, this would mean that 1.5 percent of people in these provinces, mainly Sunni Arabs, were killed for 3 years in a row—a phenomenal rate of violence beyond the Vietnam War and almost all other modern conflicts. (Chechnya might have had a higher rate during the worst years, but that’s hardly a comfort.)  



It’s also probable that Sunni Arabs are being displaced at a higher rate. Much has been made of an alleged drop in civilian casualties in September, but this may be due to widespread ethnic cleansing. One recent report noted that in Baghdad, home to one-quarter of Iraq’s population, “U.S. military officers say [the capital] has gone from being 65 percent Sunni to being 75 percent Shiite.”   


Seymour Hersh argues that, “The surge means basically that, in some way, the president has accepted ethnic cleansing.” This works two ways. Reporter Rick Rowley, who was in Anbar Province this past August, says some of the Sunni militias the Pentagon has set up and armed are violently displacing thousands of Shiites.

This is where the issue of intent creeps in. If the Bush administration is knowingly arming groups engaged in ethnic cleansing and death squad activity—and there is plenty of evidence of this—that increases the culpability for the systematic murder that results. 


These policies had their roots in the pre-war period. When the Bush administration invaded Iraq, it was openly contemptuous of Sunni Arabs because it equated them with Saddam Hussein’s regime. Ahmed Hashim, author of Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency in Iraq(and who currently serves under Gen. David Petraeus), writes that the Bush administration “thought that the Sunnis could be treated with disdain, discounted and swept aside with little in the way of adverse reaction.” 


The White House attitude was also informed by The Arab Mind by cultural anthropologist Raphael Patai. Hersh wrote this was “the bible of the neocons on Arab behavior” from which they concluded “Arabs only understand force.” This stereotype flowed down the chain of command. According to the authors of the book Cobra II, which covers the pre-war planning and invasion of Iraq, one unnamed senior officer for the 4th Infantry Division, which took control of Tikrit in April 2003, commented, “The only thing these sand niggers understand is force and I’m about to introduce them to it.” 


Told by all their leaders that Iraqis only understand force, soldiers adopted this mindset. Christopher Varhola, an Army Reserve major and anthropologist, said, “It’s not uncommon to hear American soldiers explain that the only thing the Iraqis understand is ‘force.’” He attributed this sentiment to an inability to speak Arabic and “little or no interaction with the Iraqi people.” James Circello, a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War who served as part of the 2003 invasion force, told me, “The general feeling I got was that the chain of command was trying to make us look at the Arabs as less than human so we could treat them harshly.” 


These were crude stereotypes, but they defined how the United States responded when the resistance began. In May 2003 the Bush administration dissolved all Iraqi military units and the civil service, which were disproportionately Sunni Arab. These acts were met with the first attacks in late May. They were pinpricks, killing and wounding a few soldiers, but enough that the Pentagon decided to use a sledgehammer to swat a fly. So began a cycle of force, resistance, and more force. 


On June 16, the Associated Press reported on home raids and mass detentions in Ramadi. The prior day a report from Patrick Cockburn described convoys of military vehicles in “search and destroy” missions north of Baghdad and Iraqis lining up at a police station trying to locate detained relatives. 


By late summer of 2003, writes Thomas Ricks in Fiasco,senior U.S. commanders tried to counter the insurgency with indiscriminate cordon- and-sweep operations that involved detaining thousands of Iraqis.” On August 4, 2003, Abu Ghraib prison was reopened. It took only ten more days for an official email to signal the move to institutional torture: “The gloves are coming off regarding the detainees.”  


The next month, September, Cockburn reported from Dhuluaya, a small town 50 miles north of Baghdad, how “U.S. soldiers driving bulldozers…uprooted ancient groves of date palms as well as orange and lemon trees in central Iraq as part of a new policy of collective punishment of farmers who do not give information about guerrillas attacking U.S. troops.” 


By November 2003, U.S. tactics escalated to wrapping villages in razor wire, random bombings and artillery fire, frequently killing civilians, home demolitions, hostage-taking and burning down farmlands after insurgent attacks or the scattering of live bombs in them. 


As the insurgency grew more sophisticated, downing numerous helicopters in the fall, the repression increased, bordering on mass murder. During a massive military operation the same month in Tikrit, one army lieutenant told the San Francisco Chronicle that the rules of engagement were “shoot to kill. No questions asked.” Around the new year, reporter Christian Parenti traveled to the village of Awja, Saddam Hussein’s birth village near Tikrit. Maj. Gen. Ray Odierno, Petraeus’s number two, ordered the village sealed. One soldier at a checkpoint told Parenti, “Any hajji comes near the wire we shoot ‘em. One of our scouts has like fifty-five confirmed kills.” 


There is nothing new in this history. What can and should be new is how it is viewed. These were not mistakes or over-reaction. There is a huge amount of evidence pointing to intentional policies legitimizing mass murder. The question of genocide can only be answered if there is unfettered access to U.S. government and military records—a virtual impossibility. Regardless, raising the question serves a vital purpose. It allows us to attack the roots of the occupation. Many activists have taken a “safe” course, focusing on the cost in American blood and treasure. But by failing to make the nature of the occupation the primary focus, the antiwar movement has allowed the myth of U.S. benevolence to live on for future wars, such as the looming one against Iran. And this historical narcissism ensures that the public remains primed for more wars even as it despairs of the current one. 


A.K. Gupta is an editor of the Indypendent, a bimonthly newspaper based in New York, He is currently writing a book on the history of the Iraq War to be published by Haymarket Press.