April 22, 2005 – (New York) A humanitarian aid worker's death in Iraq last week is spurring calls for a public accounting of civilian casualties by the United States government and more attention to the issue by the U.S. media.
Marla Ruzicka, 28, who fought to obtain recognition and compensation for Iraqis injured in U.S. military attacks, did not live to see all her goals accomplished.
But a week before a car bomb took her life and that of her Iraqi co-workers, Ruzicka wrote a toughly worded essay. In it, she contradicted senior Pentagon officials, stating that military commanders do keep track of Iraqi civilians killed by U.S. forces and that the number is important.
Despite Gen. Tommy Franks' assertion in 2002 that U.S. soldiers "don't do body counts" -- echoed more recently by Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld -- it is "standard operating procedure" to file a report when a noncombatant is shot, Ruzicka wrote, citing an unnamed brigadier general.
"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," she wrote in her statement, published on the website of the organisation she founded, the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict.
Amid the outpouring of sympathy over her death, Ruzicka's statement is certain to put wind in the sails of those who say either that the Pentagon is lying when it claims it doesn't track civilian casualties or that it can and must undertake such a task, both as a humanitarian imperative and in the interests of U.S. credibility.
Their numbers are growing. Among the latest to call for such statistics are 24 public health experts from six countries, including the United States and Britain, who last month castigated those two governments -- the chief partners in the 2003 invasion of Iraq -- for their "irresponsible" failure to investigate Iraqi civilian casualties.
Their statement, appearing online in the respected British Medical Journal, criticised the allies for relying on "extremely limited" Iraqi Ministry of Health data while dismissing a peer-reviewed study in another British publication, The Lancet. It estimated that about 100,000 civilians had died, over half of them women and children.
One of the statement's signers, Prof. Daniel Blumenthal, who chairs the department of community health at the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia, noted the U.S. government's claim that its forces do their utmost to minimise civilian casualties.
"How can we know whether we're making any progress when a conscious decision is made to keep that from the public?" he told IPS.
Another signer, Michael Christ, executive director of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, who is not a doctor, said in an interview that the number of dead and injured Iraqi civilians is a key test of the George W. Bush administration's claim that the purpose of the war is to promote democracy. For that reason, he said, the Pentagon is keeping a tight lid on the information.
In the absence of official civilian casualty figures, various groups and individuals have taken it upon themselves to document the loss of life and limb in Iraq, often under difficult and dangerous conditions.
When Ruzicka arrived in Iraq in April 2003, she immediately began recruiting teams of Iraqi researchers. The researchers, whose number grew to 150, conducted door-to-door surveys, gathering the names of individuals and the dates and circumstances of their death or injury.
Eventually, with the help of U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy from the opposition Democratic Party, Ruzicka succeeded in obtaining a record-setting 20 million dollars for Iraqi war victims and a tacit acknowledgement of responsibility by the U.S. military.
The cost of the Iraq war is expected to reach 207.5 billion dollars by the end of September, according to the National Priorities Project.
Amid the tributes to Ruzicka that were featured prominently in the U.S. media, no mention was made of the survey findings: 1,995 dead and 4,959 injured in the first 50 days of the invasion, according to Raed Jarrar, who directed volunteer survey teams in Baghdad and nine southern cities.
Yet the surveys, which put names and faces to thousands who would otherwise have been lumped together as "collateral damage", were never meant to be scientific.
In contrast, the Lancet study, carried out by a team of researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the Columbia University School of Nursing and Al-Mustansiriya University in Baghdad, was based on data from 988 randomly selected households across Iraq.
Its methodology has been validated by other public health experts, and its chief shortcoming -- extrapolation from a small sample size -- has been acknowledged by the researchers themselves, who have said that their results need verification.
The study, however, was dismissed by the British government and buried by the U.S. media, although it was given wider coverage in Europe. Some news outlets cite estimates compiled by the website Iraq Body Count based on press reports, which are consistently lower (17,000 to 20,000 Iraqi civilian deaths since the invasion) than the Lancet study's findings.
By continuing to ignore the most reliable estimate yet produced, media are contributing to the U.S. public's lack of awareness concerning the human cost of the war, said Jim Naureckas, editor of Extra!, a bimonthly magazine published by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting.
"There's a great deal of sensitivity in the American news business about how they're viewed politically, and the last thing they want to do is be seen as critical of the war," he told IPS.
If the news media were reporting on Iraq as intensively as they reported on last year's Asian tsunami, a much higher percentage of the public would be against the war, he added.