Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Friday, September 14, 2007

  "Remove one zero": Manipulating body counts in Iraq

Together with the Maliki government, General Petraeus is campaigning aggressively to convince reporters and the public that his claims of diminished sectarian violence are based on sound statistics. The GAO, the Associated Press, McClatchy and others have found that the Pentagon is undercounting and underreporting deaths and violence generally. The credibility of Bush and Petraeus, and their prescription of more-of-the-same, won't stand up if their statistics are revealed as nothing but a load of hooey.

At the National Press Club on Wednesday, Petraeus was greeted as a conquering hero. Never the less he remained sufficiently defensive as to wave around some papers that, he claimed, showed he was being straight regarding his highly dubious statistics. He called it "setting the record straight":

As only the military can, we have a three-page document on ethnosectarian violence methodology. And it is fairly comprehensive. And it's pretty logical and rational.

Today's LA Times has more regarding the record-straight-setting operation from the Pentagon:

U.S. military officials sought Wednesday to counter accusations that they were manipulating death tolls to make Iraq look more secure.

Stung by accusations that Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, had presented selective statistics during his testimony before Congress, the military released a statement here outlining its definition of sectarian violence: bombings, killings or other attacks committed by an ethnic group or religious sect against another, for purely sectarian purposes...

The Iraqi government also compiles statistics, but does not differentiate between sectarian and other violent deaths.

And there's the rub. Petraeus is far from eager to acknowledge that the Pentagon is dependent for its statistics upon those compiled by Iraqi civil authorities—which often are inaccurate, unmethodical, falsified, and incomplete, and always dispersed rather than centralized. The figures given for murders, bombings, and other acts of violence are a minimum count rather than an accurate representation of what is happening. The central Iraqi government, naturally, has an interest in cooperating in the pretense that the situation is really not so grim as news reports suggest:

In Baghdad on Wednesday, the national security advisor, Mowaffak Rubaie, agreed with the U.S. military that numbers coming from the media and other outlets were "very, very, very exaggerated."

Asked what the true death toll was, Rubaie said, "I don't have a figure, but I can say one thing: You probably would be correct if you removed one zero from the figures which are in the public domain or published by the newspapers."

But bashing reporters who dig out the truth won't get you very far. Iraqis know perfectly well that the Maliki and Bush governments are minimizing the body count deliberately:

Noureddine Hayali, a member of the main Sunni Arab bloc in parliament, said he suspected officials were not reporting sectarian deaths in other cities.

He also questioned whether the U.S. military figures included such incidents as killings last March in the northern city of Tall Afar...

"It is not in the interest of the government to show all these numbers. They want to show that they have made progress by decreasing death numbers," Hayali said.

Even Iraqi officials, when pressed, admit that their own figures are incredible:

Rubaie acknowledged that the government needed to devise a method to account for its dead citizens.

"I admit that we, as the Iraqi government, have a responsibility to go back to our records and do this properly and openly and help produce a figure which is credible," he said.

It's simply preposterous, then, for Petraeus and Bush to pretend that these Iraqi statistics are reliable.

Retired Army Col. Douglas A. Macgregor, a defense analyst ... said several factors made body counts unreliable in Iraq. Among them are the Muslim practice of burying bodies as soon as possible, the general chaos of war, and sectarian agendas within Maliki's government.

"You're talking about an environment where there is absolutely no accountability for anything," Macgregor said. "The bottom line is, whatever figures you are given are simply inaccurate."

Don't think so? Here are pertinent comments by the Independent's Patrick Cockburn in what is, to my mind, one of the classic dissections of Bush's "surge".

More lies have been told about casualties in Iraq and the general level of violence there than at almost any time since the First World War. In that conflict, a British minister remarked sourly that he suspected the military authorities of keeping three sets of casualty figures: "One to deceive the Cabinet, a second to deceive the people and a third to achieve themselves."

The American attitude to Iraqi civilian casualties is along much the same lines. The Baker-Hamilton report drawn up by senior non-partisan Democrats and Republicans last year examined one day in July 2006, when the US military had reported 93 attacks on US and Iraqi forces. Investigation by US intelligence agencies revealed that the real figure was about 1,100.

The Iraqi government has sought to conceal civilian casualty figures by banning journalists from the scenes of bombings, and banned hospitals and the Health Ministry from giving information. In July, AP reported, 2,024 Iraqis died violently, a 23 per cent rise on June, which was the last month for which the government gave a figure.

This is almost certainly an underestimate. In a single bombing in the district of Karada in Baghdad on 26 July, Iraqi television and Western media cited the police as saying that there were 25 dead and 100 wounded. A week later, a list of the names of 92 dead and 127 wounded, compiled by municipal workers, was pinned up on shuttered shopfronts in the area.

That is a measure of how much lying is going on. For General Petraeus and George W. Bush to pretend to the American public that their statistics are credible is a mark of extreme arrogance.

crossposted from

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