Counting the Dead in Iraq

If the Iraqi government won't provide civilian casualty figures, it's up to reporters to find them.

The tug-of-war over the releasing or withholding of civilian death tolls in Iraq is one we’ve watched closely over the years. Not only because these numbers are an important marker of how the war is going, but because the decision to keep them secret speaks volumes about the lack of confidence of Iraqi or American leaders.

Well, things must be looking particularly grim these days. On Thursday, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq released one of its periodic human rights reports and, for the first time, it contains no death statistics. The Iraqi government has decided that it does not want these numbers known, but gave no official reason. This is unfortunate, as the UN reports have become the most reliable sources of information on civilian deaths, combining the government’s figures with reports from morgues, hospitals, and municipal authorities across Iraq.

The last report, in January, put the civilian death toll for 2006 at 34,000—a number the Iraqi government angrily disputed. Sounding a lot like his American overseers, the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, called the UN report unbalanced and said it “lacks accuracy.” He then said the number was more like 12,000 (while a controversial survey by the medical journal Lancet found that 600,000 had died since the start of the war).

What’s a newspaper to do in such an instance, when the government takes away such a critical source of information? Well, it could just report the news of the withholding as The New York Times and The Washington Post did Thursday, and express regret over the loss of the most accurate figure on the status of life outside the Green Zone’s blast walls. Or, as the Los Angeles Times managed to do, it could find the numbers on its own.

In a commendable show of gumption, reporters from the LA Times found anonymous sources in the relevant ministries who helped them piece together an estimate of the number of deaths since the start of the year. The paper reported Thursday that there were 1,991 deaths in January, 1,646 in February, and 1,872 in March, right after the new Baghdad security plan was implemented. That would be about 5,500 civilian deaths since the start of the year, a number the article says is consistent with the 4,766 reported on the website,

The LA Times report also suggests an answer to the mystery of why the Iraqi government doesn’t want the numbers known—they strongly imply that the new security plan has done little to quell the violence being perpetrated upon Iraqi civilians.

If the Iraqi government won’t readily give up these statistics, and the UN subsequently can’t print them, it becomes even more crucial that journalists do all they can to get them anyway. With reporters now confined to compounds and unable to verify the reality in the streets, these numbers become an even more critical indicator of what’s going on. And there should be ways to get them—such as disgruntled government workers who want the world to see the truth of what’s happening on the streets of Iraq.

The Iraqi government’s lack of transparency should not be the end of the story.

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.