Iraqis have paid an immense price for the joys of democracy [ The Australian: December 11, 2004]

PHILLIP ADAMS, The Australian

IN one of the Iraq jokes ricocheting around the Internet, Donald Rumsfeld briefs Dubya on Fallujah.

“Mr President, while we will seek to minimise casualties, we expect that around 100,000 Iraqis will be killed – and an American dentist.”

“An American dentist?” asks a puzzled president.

“Exactly, sir! That’s what everyone will ask! No-one will give a damn about the Iraqis.”

A hundred thousand: I was citing that figure in columns months ago. NGOs and unembedded journalists were insisting that this was the magnitude of the civilian death toll. Now a study published in The Lancet proposes the same round figure. Note that we’re talking civilian deaths, not total casualties. The estimate – guesstimate – doesn’t include the far greater number of civilians maimed when they got in the way. And what would be the ratio of injuries to fatalities? Five to one? Ten?

Then factor in the casualties among the hapless conscripts in Saddam Hussein’s army. God knows how many died in Desert Storm. We don’t. Then, as now, the US refused to release figures – and in the aftermath of the first Gulf War, a humiliated Hussein wasn’t helping. However, we remember the notorious “turkey shoot” that massacred the shattered Iraqi Army retreating from Kuwait.

How many Iraqis died in Gulf Wars I and II? Three hundred thousand? Before you write angry letters to the editor, think carefully. Two wars costing the US billions of dollars have been fought. They have obliterated much of Iraq’s infrastructure, including that of the precious oil industry, and years of sanctions and the flow-on effects of the invasions have, according to all the NGOs operating in the region, led to horrendous outcomes in public health, or lack thereof. Indeed, 400,000 deaths may be a gross understatement. Certainly the Iraqis have paid an immense price for the joys of democracy. And will continue to do so.

Should an American dentist die in Fallujah, it will be because the US doesn’t want anyone to get their teeth into the topic. All we’re allowed to know, albeit reluctantly, is the number of US servicemen killed.

Since the invasion, PBS NewsHour has introduced us to more than 1100 of these blood sacrifices. In silence, they show us the faces of the dead kids. On a bad night you’ll see dozens of them, marines in their late teens and early twenties, almost invariably photographed at their graduation ceremony, in front of Old Glory.

Washington won’t admit to the number of young Americans who’ve lost their limbs, sight, or even their sanity in the carnage. The Pentagon recently confessed that “more than 15,000 troops with so-called ‘non-battle’ injuries and diseases had been evacuated from Iraq”. And that’s before the military casualties!

But back to The Lancet’s allegation that 100,000 civilians have died in the past 14 months. When I reported this in a recent column, a letter to the editor angrily accused me of fraud. The writer protested the methodology – wasn’t at all happy with the researchers choosing “33 allegedly random ‘clusters’” in Sunni hotspots like Fallujah, and complained of “heavy bias” being “exacerbated” by Iraqi interviewees providing their own “unverifiable family death statistics”.

Declaring the research “garbage”, he wrote that “anti-Bush Westerners such as Adams, embarrassed by the flowering of democracy in Afghanistan and dreading similar good news from Iraq, regarded it as useful garbage”.

Other letters were less sanguine, one pointing out that while a Fallujah cluster had been chosen, “the number of deaths was so large that the writers of the paper decided not to use it in the final figure”.

My principal problem with those protesting the 100,000 figure is that they themselves suffer from the “American dentist” syndrome. Their focus on the deaths of Americans provides support for the Islamist allegation of Western indifference to Muslim suffering. (The hostage-taking phenomenon provided evidence of this. While the world is properly horrified by the kidnapping and execution of Westerners, it fails to report that around 1000 Iraqis are stolen from the streets for every foreigner. Holding Iraqis for ransom is now a major criminal racket in Iraq – so out of control that many parents refuse to send their children to school.)

There has to be a day of reckoning on this wretched war. And in that reckoning we need more information than a rollcall of dead Americans. After all the disinformation on Iraq, the surviving defence for the invasion has been on moral grounds. The Coalition of the Willing was saving Iraq from despotism. If that’s the case, how many dead and devastated Iraqis are too many?

If we are to cling to the belief – I think the illusion – that this was a just war, then give us a number.

And let’s not be distracted by the dentist.


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