The following is an archived copy of a message sent to a Discussion List run by the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq.

Views expressed in this archived message are those of the author, not of the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq.

[Main archive index/search] [List information] [Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq Homepage]

[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]

[casi] LA Times: Baghdad's Death Toll Assessed

Baghdad's Death Toll Assessed
A Times survey of hospitals finds that at least 1,700 civilians were killed
and more than 8,000 hurt in the battle for the Iraqi capital.
By Laura King
Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles Times
May 18, 2003,

BAGHDAD -- At least 1,700 Iraqi civilians died and more than 8,000 were
injured in the battle for the Iraqi capital, according to a Los Angeles
Times survey of records from 27 hospitals in the capital and its outlying

In addition, undocumented civilian deaths in Baghdad number at least in the
hundreds and could reach 1,000, according to Islamic burial societies and
humanitarian groups that are trying to trace those missing in the conflict.

More than a month after the war's end, no official tally of civilian
casualties has emerged. Amid the disorder attending the collapse of Saddam
Hussein's regime and the nascent American military occupation, one might
never be made -- although such a reckoning could play an important role, in
the eyes of a watching world, in weighing the conflict's moral costs.

The Times' count of civilian casualties spanned the five weeks beginning
March 20, a period that includes the U.S. bombardment and subsequent ground
battle for the Iraqi capital. It also includes fatalities from unexploded
ordnance during the first 2 1/2weeks after the city fell on April 9 and
deaths as a result of injuries suffered earlier during the fighting. The
survey covered all the large hospitals and most smaller specialty facilities
in the city center, as well as those in remote districts within the
municipal boundaries.

Those victims included in the toll died as a direct result of the conflict,
but not necessarily at American hands. Medical officials said many
civilians -- even a rough estimate of the numbers is impossible -- were
killed by exploding Iraqi ammunition stored in residential neighborhoods, by
falling Iraqi antiaircraft rounds that had been aimed at American warplanes,
or by Iraqi fire directed at American troops.

U.S. military officials said repeatedly throughout the war that all possible
care was being taken to avoid civilian casualties, and expressed regret over
those that occurred. The American administration in Iraq, which is
struggling to restore basic services and control street violence, has no
plans to try to tally up the civilian dead.

"We have no way of verifying independently whether people who were killed
were civilians or not civilians," Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Dave Lapan
said Friday.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to obtaining an accurate count of civilian
deaths is distinguishing between Iraqi soldiers and ordinary citizens. In
the waning days of the war, many Iraqi fighters continued to man their
positions, but they dressed in civilian clothes and discarded their dog
tags, according to accounts from witnesses in the city at the time.

But even soldiers who shed their uniforms and threw away their weapons often
continued to carry some form of identification. The hospital figures did not
consistently separate out men between the ages of 18 and 35, one common
approach to limiting the inclusion of soldiers among the tally of civilians.
But most said if they found any indication of military affiliation, they
noted it in their patient records.

"Some of them would murmur to us they were soldiers, because they wanted us
to be able to help find their families if they died," said Dr. Mahmoud
Kubisi, a general surgeon at the 450-bed Karameh Teaching Hospital in the
city center.More than a month after the war's end, Baghdad bears ubiquitous
reminders of its dead. Hand-lettered death notices -- black banners printed
in yellow and white -- flutter from trees, walls and lampposts, growing more
faded each day. "In the name of God the merciful, and in accordance with
God's will ..." most begin, going on to list the victim's name and briefly
describe how he or she died.

For each of the conflict's dead, grief has spread widening ripples through
the capital, where about one-fifth of Iraq's 24 million people live.

"Our home is an empty place," said 72-year-old Saler Hamzeh Ali Moussawi,
72, the patriarch of a family from the south of Baghdad that lost 11 of its
members, ranging in age from 16 to 50, in a single catastrophic blow April 7
when their minivan was apparently hit by a U.S. tank shell. Family members
recovered the badly decomposed bodies four days later.

"We who are left are like wild animals -- all we can do is cry out and cry
out," said Moussawi, his lined face contorted with sorrow.

Most of Baghdad's hospitals managed to stay open throughout the fighting and
its aftermath, although looting forced about half a dozen to temporarily
close. As the dead and wounded poured in, conditions became more and more

"The whole hospital was the emergency room," Dr. Bashir Mohammed Bashir,
director of emergency medicine at Kindi General Hospital. "The nature of
injuries was so severe -- one body without a head, someone else with their
abdomen ripped open.... Human beings are so frail in the face of these
weapons of war."

Baghdad's many smaller specialty hospitals -- for eye surgery, neurology,
obstetrics and plastic surgery -- were pressed into wartime service as
emergency clinics. Dr. Mahmoud Jasim Ali, an obstetrician at Habibi
Hospital, recounted delivering a baby by caesarean section, and barely
waiting to hear her first cry before rushing to attend to a screaming man
whose arm had been blown off.

In some cases, records at Baghdad hospitals were incomplete. In others,
details were withheld by Iraqi authorities, or by what passes for authority
in the power vacuum left by the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime.

In the poor district formerly called Saddam City but now known as Sadr City,
permission from a powerful Shiite Muslim sheik was required for a journalist
to visit the neighborhood's four hospitals. At one of them, statisticians
reported that the sheik's aides had already confiscated the records.

At Mansour Hospital, in the sprawling four-hospital complex known as Medical
City in central Baghdad, doctors claimed that U.S. troops had removed their
casualty records. American soldiers in the area confirmed that they had
confiscated some weapons but denied seizing hospital documents.

The statistical departments of several Baghdad hospitals were left in
disarray by looters who swept through the city after its fall. However,
hospital staff members managed to reassemble data based on hurried notes
made by emergency doctors and nurses, patient charts and tallies kept by
morgue attendants.

In as many cases as possible, The Times examined original handwritten
records -- stacks of death certificates and long lists of carefully inked
names and personal details in the oversized ledgers that serve as each
hospital's book of the dead.

While very few Baghdad hospitals had computerized files, meticulous
record-keeping was the norm in Hussein's Iraq, which for decades sustained
an overblown bureaucracy. Iraqi death certificates, to be filled out in
quadruplicate, require detailed personal information about the deceased and
the manner of death.

But even an ingrained national habit of careful documentation couldn't stand
up entirely to war's chaos. Some hospitals ran out of death certificates.
Exhausted doctors, lurching from one maimed patient to the next, sometimes
had time for little more than a quick notation.

"We were working day and night," said Dr. Abbas Timimi, director of Abu
Ghraib General Hospital on the city's western outskirts. "With so many
people so badly hurt, we felt so much pressure to be treating patients
instead of filling out forms. But we'd always scribble something."

Doctors and nurses knew that for survivors seeking dead relatives, any scrap
of information would help. At one hospital after another, officials showed
bags of neatly labeled personal effects of the dead: family photographs,
prayer beads, bloodstained identity cards, crumpled banknotes.

"Unclaimed No. 21," read a simple handwritten note in the death records at
Thawra General Hospital in Sadr City. "She is a woman, middle-aged.... She
is a little bit fat. She is wearing a green housedress, and she is missing
some teeth." On the basis of that brief description, the body of Sadiha
Joumey, 42, was later identified by her family and taken away for burial.

Not included in The Times' count were dozens of deaths that doctors
indirectly attributed to the conflict. Those cases included pregnant women
who died of complications while giving birth at home because they could not
get to a hospital and chronically ill people, such as cardiac or dialysis
patients, who were unable to obtain needed care while the fighting raged.

"Even once the fighting stopped, our most sophisticated operating theaters,
in which we could perform open-heart surgery, had been destroyed by the
looters," said Waseem Khalid, a prominent cardiac surgeon at Ibn Bidar
Hospital for Heart Disease. "I knew I was sending some of my patients home
to die."

In the weeks after the conflict, the dead -- or at least their remains --
tended not to rest in peace. It was not uncommon for a body to be moved
three or four times, first from a shallow grave near where the person fell
to temporary sanctuary in a mosque garden or the nearest neighborhood
cemetery, and finally to a burial place of the family's choosing. Most
Shiite families, even if they live in Baghdad, bury their dead at family
plots in the holy cities of Najaf or Karbala.

Obtaining a death certificate is crucial for establishing property ownership
and inheritance rights. So grieving families are braving the difficult
bureaucratic process of obtaining the paperwork for what in many cases are
all but unidentifiable sets of remains.

Based on the eventual gathering of those certificates, the city's registry
of births and deaths says that it hopes to produce a toll of war dead, but
that it will probably take months.

Even at Baghdad's largest hospitals, such as 992-bed Yarmouk Hospital,
morgues were built to hold only a few dozen bodies. During the war, several
hospitals resorted to burying bodies on their grounds. At Thawra hospital,
officials commandeered a refrigerated truck used to deliver frozen chicken
and stored bodies in it.

Particularly in areas not served by a neighborhood hospital, mosques stepped
in to bury corpses that were rotting in cars and buildings. Volunteers, some
of them as young as 15 or 16, joined in the effort, despite the extreme
danger of moving about outdoors in the initial days of the American military

"They were very brave, these boys -- braver than men," said Hashim Qureishi,
34, an engineer who led a group of volunteers. "It was terrible work,
though, very terrible."

The mosques kept records and personal effects that would help relatives
identify the bodies later, the volunteers said.

"If they didn't have an ID on them, we would take their photograph, or use a
video camera," said volunteer Haidar Mayahi. "If the condition of the body
allowed, we would wash it before praying and burying it. But with most of
them, that wasn't possible."

Four mosque-based burial societies in widely scattered districts of the
city, which represent only a sampling of such informal groups at work,
reported they had buried a total of about 600 bodies they believed to have
been those of civilians, and many more of soldiers.

Haidar Tari, director of tracing missing persons for the Iraqi Red Crescent,
estimated there could have been up to 3,000 such undocumented burials,
perhaps one-third of them involving civilians. The Red Crescent has half a
dozen teams working in districts where large numbers of dead were buried,
but has not yet gained access to some areas under U.S. military control,
including a large swath of land near the airport.

Hardest to trace will be people who died while traveling, Tari said. Their
relatives might not have known when they left home, or where they were
headed, and thus have no idea where to look.

"On one stretch of highway alone, there were more than 50 civilian cars,
each with four or five people incinerated inside, that sat in the sun for 10
or 15 days before they were buried nearby by volunteers," Tari said. "That
is what there will be for their relatives to come and find. War is bad, but
its remnants are worse."

During and after the war, there was heated debate over the circumstances of
some civilian deaths. A blast at the Nasser Market in Baghdad's Shula
district on March 28 caused at least 50 fatalities, hospital officials said.
Witnesses blamed American bombardment, but U.S. authorities have suggested
the explosion could have been caused by Iraqi fire or stored ammunition

During the first week of April, the trail of civilian deaths followed the
trajectory of the ground battle for the city. The toll was particularly
great in Baghdad's southern outskirts, the entry point for most of the
American troops and the site of many important Iraqi military installations.

Because of the danger of travel and the breakdown of communications, many of
those deaths went unreported at the time. And with the collapse of central
authority, hospital officials say no Iraqi agency now appears to be in a
position to compile a toll based on their reports.

"No one has asked us for our figures -- not the Health Ministry, not the
bureau of registry, not the Americans, no one," said Dr. Daoud Jasim, an
orthopedic surgeon at Mahmoudiya Hospital, about 20 miles south of the city
center, that reported more than 200 civilian deaths. "And it was a
battlefield here, with the civilians caught in the middle."

Determining the civilian toll is difficult in any conflict.

William M. Arkin, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic Education at
Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, and a
consultant and contributor to The Times, said that it probably will not be
known until summer or later how many civilians died in Iraq but that the
number will probably be "many thousands."

Arkin, who was a military consultant to Human Rights Watch in its 2000
assessment of civilian deaths in Yugoslavia and also estimated civilian
casualties in the 2001 conflict in Afghanistan, said it was not possible to
assess the effectiveness of the use of precision-guided weapons to minimize
civilian casualties without knowing how many civilians died as a result of
an air attack or ground conflict. But, he said, his "gut feeling" was that
the air-delivered precision-guided weapons "did very well."

"If the worst single incident of civilian collateral damage in this war from
airstrikes is the market bombing [in Baghdad], where 50 or so civilians
died, you can get a sense of the advancement that has occurred as a result
of a greater percentage of precision-guided weapons being used by air
forces," he said.

Some 3,500 Iraqi civilians died in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, including
about 700 in the Baghdad area, he said. Almost all were killed by air

It is difficult to compare the number of civilian casualties in the Iraq war
to previous U.S. conflicts, Arkin said, because the wars were fought
differently. In Yugoslavia, he said, there were an estimated 500 civilian
casualties, but it was largely an air war. In Afghanistan, he said,
estimates of civilian casualties ranged from 1,200 to 3,000.

Several human rights and humanitarian groups are attempting to come up with
civilian casualty tallies both for Baghdad and the country as a whole.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch, which has been compiling statistics
elsewhere in the country, began its investigations in Baghdad last week. A
fledgling Washington-based group called the Campaign for Innocent Victims in
Conflict, or CIVIC, has documented nearly 600 deaths in the capital thus
far, but says its emphasis is on locating and assisting survivors rather
than compiling a complete tally.

Attempts by Iraq's Ministry of Health to compile records halted just prior
to what several hospitals said was the phase of heaviest casualties, from
April 7-9. As of April 6, the ministry said it had recorded 292 civilian
deaths in the city's four central districts, but did not provide a
hospital-by-hospital breakdown.

Several doctors said they believed that during the war, Iraqi authorities
provided civilian casualty counts to the international media that were
inflated with dead and injured soldiers. Military deaths were a closely held
secret, however, and their extent might never be known.

"We were divided, with a special sector for the military and a general in
charge of it, a doctor," said Sabhan Mohammedawi, the director of statistics
at Yarmouk Hospital. "No one dared to ask them about their numbers. And then
they were gone."

Times staff writer Richard Simon in Washington contributed to this report.

Sent via the discussion list of the Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq.
To unsubscribe, visit
To contact the list manager, email
All postings are archived on CASI's website:

[Campaign Against Sanctions on Iraq Homepage]