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"These statistics demonstrate that the U.S. military can and does track civilian casualties"
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Aid worker's words — just a week before she was killed
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 driver also died. She filed this piece from Baghdad a week before her death.
The facts cited in it have been reported elsewhere as a matter of public record. However, estimates of the number of civilian deaths in Iraq vary widely. Media reports put the number between 17,000 and 20,000 people.
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.
Marla Ruzicka, was founder of the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict. In 2003, she organized surveyors across Iraq to document civilian casualties. Before that, she managed a similar project in Afghanistan that helped to secure assistance from the U.S. government for civilian victims.
© Copyright M Ruzicka, USA Today 2005.
Marla Ruzicka's life and death drew attention to Iraq issues
Trudy Rubin, Philadelphia Inquirer
April 21, 2005
Civilian casualties are an inconvenient stain on the storyline of Iraq liberation.
The Iraqi wedding party bombed by mistake; the small girl shot dead by U.S. fire aimed next door; the family killed by nervous American soldiers at a checkpoint - all are often dismissed as unavoidable collateral damage. U.S. officials don't give out any official figures on such deaths.
That leads to rampant speculation about numbers. In October, the London-based medical publication The Lancet contended there were 100,000 civilian deaths as a consequence of the Iraq invasion; this figure seems an exaggeration. www.Iraqbodycount.net suggested just under 17,000 as of late 2004, based on deaths reported in the news media. There is no question that many thousands have died.
Iraqis can apply to the U.S. military for compensation, but the process is often arbitrary. If the death is deemed to be "combat-related," no payment is made. Marla Ruzicka made it her mission to compile data on civilian casualties and seek aid for the victims. She started in Kabul, on a shoestring, charming journalists, military commanders and embassy officials into helping with the project, then seeking Afghan victims and bringing them to U.S. attention.
After the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, she moved to Iraq, starting the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, or CIVIC.
With her courageous Iraqi aide, Faiz Ali Salem, who died alongside her, she organized Iraqi volunteers to survey civilian casualties. She traveled without guards, protected only by a black abaya (traditional gown), venturing where few foreigners dared go.
Her work was so impressive it persuaded Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont to champion her idea of creating a civic assistance program for Afghan and Iraqi civilian victims. This is the first program of its kind; about $10 million has gone to each country, and another $10 million was allocated for Iraq last week. The funds can be used for medical treatment, rebuilding damaged homes, business loans and other forms of aid.
"The program never would have happened without Marla's initiative," I was told by Tim Reiser, an aide to Senator Leahy who worked closely with Ms. Ruzicka. "Marla helped us learn about the victims' needs on the ground, which is one reason her loss is so devastating."
Ms. Ruzicka understood that helping civilian victims is not just the right thing to do, but also is militarily essential. I have sat in Baghdad mosques and heard Iraqis rage to their imams about "collateral damage" from U.S. fire - relatives killed and neighborhoods shattered. These are the emotions that will make young men think about attacking U.S. soldiers - until U.S. troops are drawn down.
On the day she died, she was on her way to help some Iraqis who had lost family members. The suicide bomber was aiming at a nearby U.S. convoy, but her car was caught in the blast.
"I have never met ... someone so young who gave so much of herself to so many people, and who made such a difference doing it," Mr. Leahy said in tribute. He will move to rename the victims' aid program in her honor. Would that her death could jolt the Pentagon into revealing those civilian death numbers - and getting the numbers down.
© Copyright Phil Inquirer 2005.
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© Copyright M Ruzicka, USA Today 2005.
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