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The Iraqi calculus

Paul Rogers
28 May 2003

Towards the end of the intense and chaotic Iraq war, reports have begun to emerge of large numbers of civilian casualties. While coalition sources played these reports down or ignored them altogether, independent analysts such as www.iraqbodycount.net were beginning to accumulate evidence from multiple sources suggesting that up to 2,000 civilians had been killed and many thousands injured.

In the six weeks since the end of the war, much more information has emerged, and it shows that the number of civilians killed was much higher than the early evidence suggested. In particular, casualty figures began to be made available from hospitals across Baghdad and from elsewhere in Iraq. These suggest that over 6,000 civilians were killed in the three weeks of war, added to whom are the continuing casualties from unexploded cluster munitions and other weapons.

The problem of unexploded ordnance persists, and its very pervasiveness gives some idea of the extensive use by the Americans and the British of area-impact munitions such as cluster bombs. This, in turn, is relevant to the loss of life among the Iraqi military. Figures are difficult to adduce, and are certainly not now available from coalition sources, but some informed calculations measure them at between at least 10,000 and probably 15,000 soldiers killed over the three-week period (see Jonathan Steele’s “Body counts”, The Guardian 28 May 2003].

During the war itself, coalition representatives in Qatar did speak readily of the “destruction” of three Iraqi Republican Guard divisions, in addition to several thousands of other deaths. Since the war, reports from some of the journalists “embedded” with leading US forces indicate widespread carnage among ill-protected Iraqi troops exposed to the full force of coalition firepower.

From all the different sources it is reasonable to conclude that around 20,000 Iraqi soldiers and civilians were killed in the war. Iraq has a population that is about one-tenth of that of the United States, so an equivalent loss in the United States would be of the order of 200,000 people killed in three weeks. In the eleven years of the US involvement in the Vietnam war, from 1964 to 1975, the US lost over 58,000 of its forces.

In modern warfare it is a common calculus that for every person who dies, three more are seriously injured. On this basis, it is likely that at least 50,000 Iraqis were injured in addition to the 20,000 killed.

Such a number, in such a short space of time and in a country with a relatively small population, means that millions of Iraqis will have personal knowledge of someone killed or injured in a war that has been described repeatedly as a war of liberation. Perhaps this should be recognised as a factor in the subsequent unpopularity of US troops within the country.

Motives for war

It can be argued, of course, that the very brutal and repressive regime of Saddam Hussein could not be terminated without inflicting extensive “collateral damage”. There are two problems with this approach.

First, the stated aim of the war was to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), yet intensive searching has failed to find them and the main US inspection team is now being withdrawn.

This aim of WMD destruction is now being downgraded, and more emphasis is being placed on the regime’s repeated flouting of UN resolutions; this too is an uneasy argument, given the failure to obtain UN authorisation for war on such a basis.

Second, it is difficult to sustain the argument for regime termination because of its innate brutality, given that Saddam was on several occasions closely allied to the United States, even at a time when his regime was engaging in systematic repression, including the use of chemical weapons against its own Kurdish population.

Moreover, the stated aim of bringing Iraq to an independent democracy does not seem too plausible. It now appears that occupying forces will remain for up to two years, and that permanent US military bases are already being established. Given Washington’s recent experience with Turkish parliamentary democracy, it is unlikely that it will facilitate a democratic Iraq that could well require all US forces to leave the country forthwith.

A suspicion across the region has long been that the Iraq war was essentially about the control of oil and the need to decrease dependence on Saudi Arabia. This belief has been fueled by the comment of Philip J. Carroll, the US official in charge of Washington’s oil policy in Iraq, that Iraq’s interests might best be served by ignoring Opec quotas and exporting all the oil it could.

As the Washington Post put it on 17 May 2003:

“Flows of Iraqi oil to the world market unconstrained by OPEC quotas could further erode the cartel’s already limited ability to set prices and might even trigger a price war, eating into the profits of its member countries. Such an outcome would surely delight the Bush administration as well as buyers of gasoline in the United States.”

A cynical analyst might conclude that one function of the war, at least in the short-term and from a US perspective, was to break Opec, damage the economies of countries such as Iran and Venezuela and ensure price cuts at gas stations in the run-up to the 2004 presidential election.

The condition of Iraq

The UN resolution of 22 May lifting economic sanctions on Iraq does give some semblance of authority for the current foreign occupation of the country, but it will also give a certain authority for UN officials to deliver independent analyses of the state of the country. This has already started with robust warnings from the senior UN humanitarian assistance officer in Iraq, Ramiro Lopes da Silva of a powerful backlash developing against US occupation.

In the weeks since the war ended, progress in stabilisation has been appallingly slow. There are continuing problems with electricity and water supplies, sewage and waste disposal, along with a lack of medical supplies. Criminality is rife, including persistent looting and robbery, made worse by the widespread availability of firearms.

There have been suggestions that the British have handled things much better in and around Basra, but there is little proof of this. One of the major universities of the Arab world in the city has been looted of almost everything moveable, including electricity cables; this is just one example of a pervasive lack of order in a city under the control of armed forces that are supposed to be experienced in peacekeeping.

In the much larger US-controlled areas, the ominous development has been the rise in attacks on US troops. It is apparent that there has been little effort to instal an effective policing system, either by Iraqi units or by the occupying forces themselves, but the deep unpopularity of the occupiers means that they are increasingly concerned not with policing public order but with protecting themselves.

The risk is that this is becoming a vicious circle. The more attacks there are on US troops, the more they concentrate on defending themselves, including shooting at demonstrators – with this reinforcing their image as repressive occupiers.

In these circumstances, the decision to disband the Iraqi armed forces is extraordinary. By doing so, the United States is putting into circulation over 350,000 unemployed young men, large numbers of whom have access to guns and other munitions. It is a recipe for further violence and runs directly counter to standard practice in post-conflict peace-building.

A far more sensible policy would have been to conscript army units into civil reconstruction, using them as the core elements in a process into which many more people could have been incorporated very rapidly. This would have formed a basis for providing immediate employment on a substantial scale. Instead, the opposite is happening, with increased unemployment precisely when public order is becoming so difficult to maintain.

The wider issue here is that all of these developments support the view that the occupying forces have very little interest in the condition of the ordinary people of Iraq – their concern is seen to be with the control of a major Arab state with all its oil riches, coupled with the possibility of this even leading to some form of action against Iran.

The accuracy or otherwise of such a viewpoint is less significant in the present context than the fact that it is very widespread across the Middle East – and is daily reinforced by the actual behaviour of the occupying forces. Thus, the conclusion has to be drawn that current circumstances are leading to increasing bitterness and opposition with Iraq and a further deepening of the anti-American (and anti-British) mood across the region. A radical change of policy is required. There is little sign of that happening, and the peace – such as it exists – is steadily being lost.

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