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25 000 civilians have been killed in Iraq since invasion

Owen Dyer

The number of civilians killed in the Iraq war from the invasion of 20 March 2003 to 19 March this year is 24 865, reports Iraq Body Count, an organisation that keeps track of reported deaths of civilians in Iraq. A further 42 500 civilians were reported wounded.

The report is sure to generate controversy, not least because of its finding that the group responsible for killing the most civilians is the US armed forces and not insurgents or terrorists. The report also shows that the second year of the occupation has seen almost twice as many civilian casualties as the first.

Confidence is growing that the true count of violent deaths of civilians is around the 25 000 mark, says John Sloboda, a professor of psychiatry at Keele University, Staffordshire, and co-founder of Iraq Body Count.

He said, "We still hear a lot about the famous and often misrepresented Lancet survey, but the UN development programme produced its 2004 Iraq living conditions survey in May based on a bigger representative sample [21 688 households]. That survey estimated a 95% confidence interval of 18 000 to 29 000 deaths, so we are smack in the middle of that, which is reassuring.

"We are also within the confidence intervals of the Lancet study, which were 8000 to 194 000, so we aren’t actually contradicting them. Moreover, they included non-violent deaths and were counting all cause excess mortality."

Iraq Body Count’s principal method is to record all deaths that have been independently reported by two trusted sources, mostly Western media. But because the collapse in security has increasingly confined Western journalists to the protected "green zone," the group has come to rely more on Iraqi journalists and particularly on Iraqi government sources, said Professor Sloboda. Great care is taken to ensure that duplicate accounts of the same incident are not recorded more than once, he added.

The figure of 24 865 includes all deaths from traumatic injury related to the war. Most of these were caused by acts of violence, but a few were ascribed to unexploded munitions. Insurgents are not counted as civilians, but Iraqi police and unsigned army recruits are.

Of the cases where the identity of the killer is known, foreign occupying forces have killed four times as many civilians as the anti-occupation forces have, the report says. Of deaths caused by coalition forces, 98.5% were attributable to the US contingent. Of all the civilian deaths, "US forces alone" caused 37.3%, "anti-occupation forces alone" caused 9.5%, cross fire in which both parties were involved caused 2.5%, "terrorist attacks" (as defined by the Ministry of Health) caused 1.3%, "military actions" (defined by the ministry) caused 2.4%, and "unknown agents" caused 11%.

The remaining 35.9% of killings were "predominantly criminal" murders. In attributing these murders to the effects of war, Iraq Body Count subtracted the prewar murder rate from its figures. "This represents a phenomenal crime wave that began just after the invasion and has continued at a steady rate ever since," said Professor Sloboda. "This drip drip of criminal murders is largely unreported, and we rely on morgues for this data, but it adds up to one of the main causes of death."

Overall, deaths caused by the US military were greatest during the invasion, with other peaks at the time of the Shia militia uprising and the two suppressions in Falluja. Deaths caused by anti-occupation forces have been climbing steeply in recent months, and the number of criminal murders has remained steady and high. The overall trend in the civilian death rate is currently upward.

Iraq Body Count takes no official position on the war but is highly critical of Western governments that fail to count civilian casualties while insisting they are doing everything possible to minimise them. "We’ve shown that citizens using the internet can provide a detailed picture of the effects of war," said Professor Sloboda. "Surely governments who contemplate wars of intervention have no excuse for failing to do the same."