We Don’t Do Body Counts

Alternatively titled … “The Death of Humanitarianism.”

The latest strategy of the Bush Administration in Iraq is not to confront the reality on the ground, but to simply engage in a large-scale PR campaign claiming the reported violence is “exaggerated,” blame the media for mentioning the phrase “civil war” and to argue things are actually going pretty well. To this end, we have seen, over the last few days, press conferences by General Casey and Rummy and we saw General Pace appearing on the Sunday shows.

In my view, their spin actually undercuts the cause of humanitarianism. This is exemplified by the dispute over the number of deaths that occurred in the days following the bombing of the Shiite Shrine in Samarra.

As most are aware, the Washington Post reported that the death toll from violence in Iraq in the days following the bombing exceeded 1,000. The Post sourced its story from “morgue officials” who said “they logged more than 1,300 dead” and the Statistics Department of the Iraqi police that “put the nationwide toll at 1,020 since Wednesday [while acknowledging] that figure was based on paperwork that is sometimes delayed before reaching police headquarters.”

So did our leaders – who now claim to be championing the cause of humanitarianism in Iraq – demand accountability of those who were committing these acts? Did they lash out at the Mahdi Army, the Badr Brigade or the Iraqi Security forces who are purported to have participated or to have stood by while the violence ensued as they lashed out against Syria regarding the Hariri assassination? Did they explain why U.S. forces were either unwilling or unable to stop the violence?

Of course not. Rather than attack the perpetrators of the violence, our leaders aimed their criticism at the media. They chastised discussions about a “civil war” ignoring that both Khalilzad and Negroponte openly discussed the possibility. They claimed that the death toll was an “exaggeration” and the number was really around 220. Sadly, this number was immediately exposed as bogus when Iraqi PM Ibrahim Al Jafari decided to push his own low number of 379. Jafari’s number is suspect given his history of covering for Shiite violence and since he is beholden to Muqtada Al Sadr, the prime suspect of human rights violatrions in this instance, for Jafari’s position as PM.

The Washington Post then did a follow-up piece noting the challenges to the number and providing a third source – the Interior Ministry’s statistics department that put the number at 1,077. The Post also reported that morgue officials “have come under pressure not to investigate the soaring number of apparent cases of execution and torture in the country.” Coincidentally, the Guardian did a report on “Faik Bakir, the director of the Baghdad morgue, [who, according to the outgoing head of the UN human rights office in Iraq] fled Iraq in fear of his life after reporting that more than 7,000 people have been killed by death squads in recent months.”

The Washington Post then provided a fourth source for the number exceeding 1,000.

An international official in Baghdad who is familiar with the tabulation of the death toll said Thursday that roughly 1,000 people were killed between the day of the bombing and Monday, when the government lifted a curfew imposed to stem the violence.

The international official, who spoke on condition he not be identified further, said the figure came from morgue officials and others before the government announced a much lower toll.

He said morgue officials and others acceded to the reduced official count because they feared the militias, the death squads and the government. “They’re afraid,” the official said.

And The Post continues to stand by its reporting.

So do our leaders pay this evidence any heed? Demand an investigation of human rights abuses or on threats being made against those who would speak up about such things? No. Instead, we get General Casey who claims the deaths are “estimated” at 350 (notice the nice out he leaves himself) which is then echoed by Rummy. I am unaware of either providing a single source for their claim.

Yet, the claims of “exaggerations” about the actual conditions in Iraq further had the whiff of bullshit when they were so closely followed by many more execution-style deaths including the death by sniper of the General in charge of security in Baghdad and reports just from today of:

The discovery of 18 dead men who had been garroted and left in or around a minibus.

The discovery of 2 dead men in East Baghdad who had been tied up and shot.

4 other men discovered strangled.

A man pulled from the trunk of a car and shot to death in the street in front of an Iraqi patrol.

The abduction of 50 workers from a security firm in Baghdad located close to the Green Zone who were taken by gunmen dressed in the uniforms of Interior Ministry commandos.

Downplaying this violence and ignoring threats against those who report it does not further the cause of humanitarianism. Acknowledging these incidents and demanding accountability from all the perpetrators of such acts is what is necessary. This is just a further chapter exposing the fact that this war never really was about humanitarianism for the Bush administration or the right at large.

From a macro prospective, one must wonder whether viable humanitarianism as a part of American foreign policy – something I and, I believe, most liberals truly believe in – has suffered a staggering blow because of this war. I believe we are once again in a 1994, post-Somalia mind frame where future humantarian efforts (like those that would have assisted Rwanda or were effective in Bosnia and Kosovo) are unlikely to be called for by our leaders or the media. Just look at the Darfur.

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