To me, if we’re going to talk about winning hearts and minds, it begins and ends with how many civilians are being killed in the conflict. It just kept manifesting itself in different ways: Iraqi frustration with U.S. presence here, the growth of the insurgency, the growth of terrorism, the development of al Qaeda — there was always a link back to civilian casualties. And then I thought, as an Arabic speaker and someone who can get out a little bit more, that it was a good use of my resources to focus on that, because we could get to that story in a way that most people couldn’t.
It was just on a whim one day. I thought that I’d just go to the Ministry of Health and see if they have the statistics. Because the U.S., at the time, said they didn’t have them. I thought, “Who knows, maybe they’re keeping them.” And the officials there, they gave us the numbers. I said, “I don’t suppose you have, you know, the number of civilians killed. I don’t suppose you have this divided by coalition versus noncoalition.” They said, “Sure!” And they handed me the sheet, and I thought, “Well, good Lord.”
That was in September of 2004. And one thing to point out: at the time, Iraq was pretty well known for its record-keeping. You know, there are some countries where you can’t depend on records at all. But there was a real, I don’t know, commitment to details, and to records, and to being accurate in the record-keeping. So I felt really comfortable going with their numbers. The Iraqi health ministry is sort of an objective group that has no incentive to taint the numbers one way or the other at the time. I mean these were statisticians, they weren’t politicians. So, I felt it was important to import [into an article on civilian casualties published on September 24, 2004] what they had recorded, based on their information. They weren’t doing it haphazardly.
I wanted to keep following it, but I’ve gone back, oh, maybe four or five times since, and they will not release numbers on their records of Iraqis killed by coalition forces. And no one else has ever reported that number. There’ve been reports of civilians killed, but never that breakdown. Well, [the official at the health ministry] hinted at [why]. He said, “I’m not allowed to release them. I got in trouble, it caused a lot of problems, it went all the way up to the health ministry. You know, the top levels of the government went crazy and were upset about these numbers being released.”
Knight Ridder (McClatchy)
We haven’t been aggressive enough in having our home bases petition the Pentagon and the administration to reveal these [civilian casualty] figures. They keep them, we know they keep them and we have some partial figures released from time to time or somebody’s been leaked something. But I think it’s shameful that they have the figures and won’t release them.
And I just don’t understand why. I’m a firm believer in “the key to p.r. is honesty, honesty, honesty,” so why not say, “Look, here they are. War is bloody. There’s going to be civilian casualties. Here’s what they are. We’ll give it to you month to month.” And then it wouldn’t be this big scary unknown, where you have all these wild speculations that range from hundreds of thousands to a few thousand. And, I think even what they have is not a complete picture, but at least it would be a starting point. And I think it would work to [the military’s] advantage because it would be far smaller than some of these estimates that have been put out there.