Why Numbers Matter

BAGHDAD --The writer, a 28-year-old humanitarian aid worker from California, was killed Saturday in Baghdad when a suicide bomber aiming for a convoy of contractors pulled alongside her vehicle and detonated his explosives. Her longtime driver and translator, Faiz Ali Salim, also died. She filed this piece from Baghdad a week before her death.

In my two years in Iraq, the one question I am asked the most is: "How many Iraqi civilians have been killed by American forces?" The American public has a right to know how many Iraqis have lost their lives since the start of the war and as hostilities continue.

In a news conference at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan in March 2002, Gen. Tommy Franks said, "We don't do body counts." His words outraged the Arab world and damaged the U.S. claim that its forces go to great lengths to minimize civilian casualties.

During the Iraq war, as U.S. troops pushed toward Baghdad, counting civilian casualties was not a priority for the military. However, since May 1, 2003, when President Bush declared major combat operations over and the U.S. military moved into a phase referred to as "stability operations," most units began to keep track of Iraqi civilians killed at checkpoints or during foot patrols by U.S. soldiers.

Here in Baghdad, a brigadier general commander explained to me that it is standard operating procedure for U.S. troops to file a spot report when they shoot a non-combatant. It is in the military's interest to release these statistics.

Recently, I obtained statistics on civilian casualties from a high-ranking U.S. military official. The numbers were for Baghdad only, for a short period, during a relatively quiet time. Other hot spots, such as the Ramadi and Mosul areas, could prove worse. The statistics showed that 29 civilians were killed by small-arms fire during firefights between U.S. troops and insurgents between Feb. 28 and April 5 -- four times the number of Iraqi police killed in the same period. It is not clear whether the bullets that killed these civilians were fired by U.S. troops or insurgents.

A good place to search for Iraqi civilian death counts is the Iraqi Assistance Center in Baghdad and the General Information Centers set up by the U.S. military across Iraq. Iraqis who have been harmed by Americans have the right to file claims for compensation at these locations, and some claims have been paid. But others have been denied, even when the U.S. forces were in the wrong.

The Marines have also been paying compensation in Fallujah and Najaf. These data serve as a good barometer of the civilian costs of battle in both cities.

These statistics demonstrate that the U.S. military can and does track civilian casualties. Troops on the ground keep these records because they recognize they have a responsibility to review each action taken and that it is in their interest to minimize mistakes, especially since winning the hearts and minds of Iraqis is a key component of their strategy. The military should also want to release this information for the purposes of comparison with reports such as the Lancet study published late last year. It suggested that since the U.S.-led invasion there had been 100,000 deaths in Iraq.

A further step should be taken. In my dealings with U.S. military officials here, they have shown regret and remorse for the deaths and injuries of civilians. Systematically recording and publicly releasing civilian casualty numbers would assist in helping the victims who survive to piece their lives back together.

A number is important not only to quantify the cost of war, but as a reminder of those whose dreams will never be realized in a free and democratic Iraq.

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