Study: Between 11,000 and 15,000 killed in Iraq

Between 11,000 and 15,000 Iraqis died in Operation Iraqi Freedom, with 30 percent, or between 3,200 and 4,300 people, being civilian noncombatants, according to a new study from the “Project on Defense Alternatives”:, a Boston-based think tank. The percentage of noncombatant deaths is almost twice that of the 1991 Gulf War.
The study looks at the period from March 19 to May 1, when “President George W. Bush”: declared “major combat operations” to be over, and finds that:

  • Approximately 201 coalition troops, of which 148 were American, died in Operation Iraqi Freedom; and
  • between 11,000 and 15,000 Iraqis died, with about 30 percent (3,200 to 4,300) being noncombatant civilians who did not take up arms against Coalition troops.

The study used “operational data, demographic data, several hospital and burial society surveys, media interviews with Iraqi military personnel, battlefield fatality estimates made by US field commanders and embedded reporters, and media and non-governmental accounts of hundreds of civilian casualty incidents” to come to its conclusions.
(The study uses the terms “combatants” and “noncombatants” instead of “military” and “civilians,” because it appears a significant number of civilians took up arms and a number of Iraqi soldiers fought out of uniform and may have been mistaken for civilians.)
How did the 2003 war in Iraq compare to the 1991 Gulf War? Although there is uncertainty as to the number killed in 1991, the Project believes that more than 3,500 civilians and between 20,000 and 26,000 Iraqi troops died in that conflict. The executive summary says:

  • Both the absolute number and the proportion of noncombatants among the Iraqi war dead was higher in Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) than in Operation Desert Storm (ODS), twelve years earlier. This, despite the intervening years of technological development and enhancements to US warfighting capabilities (which cost US taxpayers ~ $1 trillion) and despite the fact that far fewer aerial munitions were used in OIF than in ODS and a much higher proportion of these were guided.
  • In absolute terms, US, British, and Iraqi combatant fatalities were substantially fewer in the 2003 war than in the first Gulf War. Iraqi fatalities in 2003 were perhaps only 37 percent as numerous; US and British fatalities, 48 percent as numerous. Yet, measured against the numbers of troops engaged on both sides during the two wars, casualty rates were actually higher in 2003 for all concerned.
  • Looking at both the 1991 and 2003 wars, the only feature that marks the two wars as ostensibly “revolutionary” is the low ratio of US and British fatalities to Iraqi ones. These ratios are in the range of 70-90 to one. (By comparison, Israel was able to achieve exchange rates of no better than 4-to-1 in its wars with Arab states.) Apart from the relatively low number of Anglo-American fatalities, both of the wars had death tolls that registered within range of many strategically significant wars of the past 40 years. They do not stand out unambiguously as “low casualty” wars.

Why were there more noncombatants deaths and no significant decline in the number of combatant deaths this time around? The goal of Operation Iraqi Freedom was fundamentally different from the 1991 Gulf War: Regime Change. The United States needed to operate more deeply into Iraqi territory than before and there was more fighting in and around cities. Not only were more civilians placed in harm’s way, but more civilians decided to pick up arms and fight the invaders. Most of the fighting in the 1991 war, however, took place in the mostly empty southern and western desert of Iraq around Kuwait.

It’s not pretty. It’s not surgical. You want surgical, you should have left the place alone. You try to limit collateral damage, but they want to fight. Now it’s just smash-mouth football.
–Chief Warrant Officer Pat Woellhof with USMC units in Nasiriyah, April 2003

Many of the Iraqi war dead were concentrated in or around Baghdad, where some of the heaviest fighting occurred. Between 4,376 and 5,526 people — combatant and noncombatant — appeared to have died in fighting for the Iraqi capital. The study estimates that _at least_ 2,876 of those killed were noncombatant civilians. Much of the carnage can be attributed to attempts by Baghdad residents to flee as the Americans advanced. The day before the first American thrust into the city, the International Red Cross described a scene of chaos as thousands of residents jammed the streets in cars, taxis and even horse-drawn carts in attempt to flee the city. The next day saw heavy fighting, with civilians caught in the crossfire. “In one incident,” the report states, “at a south Baghdad interchange, two dozen civilian vehicles were inadvertently destroyed — their occupants torn apart or incinerated — by a US mechanized task force that was responding to an attack from nearby Fedayeen. Women and children were among the recognizable dead remaining in the wreckage days later.” (Irish Times) At the time, _The Guardian_ reported that the streets of Baghdad were strewn with bodies.
In the air campaign, one third as many fighter and bomber sorties were flown in 2003 as in 1991, and Operation Iraqi Freedom saw only 13 percent of the total number of bombs dropped in Operation Desert Storm. But 19,948 of the 29,900 bombs used in 2003 were guided (66.7 percent) compared to 6.5 percent in 1991. This increasing reliance on guided munitions gives the impression — in the public’s mind at least — that there will be fewer casualties. But the report makes the point that being more accurate doesn’t fewer people die. _It means hitting the target and achieving the aim with fewer bombs._ “Whether this produces fewer casualties depends on one’s target and intent,” the report says.
In all, comparing the two conflicts leads to this:

 Operation Desert Storm (1991)Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003)
Noncombatant deaths (approx.)Approximately 3,500between 3,200 and 4,300
Combatant deaths (approx.)Between 20,000 and 26,000between 7,600 and 9,400
Percentage of noncombatant deaths between 13.5 and 17.5Approximately 30 percent

Note the similarities in noncombatant deaths between the two wars, despite 12 years of technological advances, the dropping of fewer bombs and more precision-guided ones. None of these factors guaranteed a reduction in noncombatant deaths, which should surprise people who think America’s ability to wage war is somehow “cleaner” or less harmful to the innocents.
But these were two different wars, right? Yes. And that reflects a strategic change more than a technological one. The goal of regime change fundamentally changed how this war was fought, with more fighting in urban areas, closer to civilians and against Iraqi civilians defending their country. So we shouldn’t make a big deal out of the similar figures for noncombatant deaths, right? Two different wars, apples and oranges, etc.
But the 1991 war was a war gamer’s dream scenario. Two large armies, in the middle of a featureless desert, in a mostly unpopulated area going at one another. That kind of war _won’t happen again._ Wars like Operation Iraqi Freedom will likely be more common, with heavy urban fighting and a confusion as to who is a combatant and who is not. While 3,500 people killed and a total casualty count of 11,000 to 15,000 might not sound like many — considering it was a major invasion — a 30 percent noncombatant casualty rate is horrible and dangerous. The (relatively) low numbers of Iraqi war dead was because “major combat” ceased after the Iraqi Army disintegrated. Can the United States count on that to happen every time? What happens if America gets into another war like this and the enemy _doesn’t_ roll over? What happens if you have 100,000 war dead and 30 percent of that is noncombatant? Will the United States be able to tolerate 30,000 noncombatant deaths? Will the world be able to tolerate the United States?
My point is that war is dangerous, deadly and highly imprecise. Lots of people who don’t have any dog in the fight are going to pay the ultimate price. And this will lead to vengeance and hatred on the part of those left behind. As the father of a girl killed by a cluster bomblet said, “I am going to kill America — not today, after 10 years.”
If that’s the legacy of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the America’s leaders — and its people — should be very careful about future wars. Winning ugly may be winning, but the ultimate cost can be higher than the victory.

2 Comments on “Study: Between 11,000 and 15,000 killed in Iraq”

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