Violence In Iraq: A Comparison

This report in today’s Los Angeles Times says that 50,000 Iraqis have been killed since the American-led invasion in March 2003. A large majority of these were murdered by terrorists. The Times trumpets its figure, which it considers conservative, as a rebuke to the Bush administration–the article’s very first sentence notes that its figure is “20,000 higher than previously acknowledged by the Bush administration.” No doubt the Times’ count will be so interpreted when it is repeated by hundreds of other news outlets over the next few days.

The Times makes no effort to put its 50,000 number into any sort of context. Reading its article, one might get the impression that pre-2003 Iraq was the balloon-flying paradise so notoriously depicted by Michael Moore. A bit of research, however, offers evidence that the current level of violence is, sadly, nothing new.

In January 2003, two months before the coalition’s attack on Saddam’s regime began, John Burns wrote a chilling account of Saddam Hussein’s reign of terror in the New York Times. Burns’ article, titled “How Many People Has Saddam Killed?”, recounted some once-familiar numbers that seem to have been forgotten in the current media hysteria. Burns noted that Saddam was widely considered to be responsible for “a million dead Iraqis,” a number that included 500,000 killed in the war Saddam launched against Iran. Burns tried to estimate separately the number that were simply murdered:

Casualties from Iraq’s gulag are harder to estimate. Accounts collected by Western human rights groups from Iraqi émigrés and defectors have suggested that the number of those who have “disappeared” into the hands of the secret police, never to be heard from again, could be 200,000.

Burns’ piece is notable, too, for its appalling description of Abu Ghraib prison at a time when it really was a center of torture and mass murder. As he documents the fear that penetrated Iraqi society, Burns also reminds us that beheadings in that long-suffering place are nothing new:

More recently, … scores of women have been executed under a new twist in a “return to faith” campaign proclaimed by Mr. Hussein. … Often, the executions have been carried out by the Fedayeen Saddam, a paramilitary group headed by Mr. Hussein’s oldest son, 38-year-old Uday. These men, masked and clad in black, make the women kneel in busy city squares, along crowded sidewalks, or in neighborhood plots, then behead them with swords.

No doubt, some of the beheadings that have occurred over the past three years have been carried out by the very same people who committed the same outrages on Saddam’s orders.

When I read the L. A. Times’ breathless account of 50,000 dead Iraqis, my thoughts went back to pre-2003 days when leftists would claim that the United Nations’ sanctions were responsible for enormous numbers of fatalities in that country. In the Muslim world it was commonly said that sanctions killed 100,000 Iraqi children a year, or a million altogether. Some estimates ranged as high as two million.

Such claims are wildly inflated. (Ironically, some of the same people who peddled these inflated figures when attacking the United States for supporting the U.N.’s sanctions are now in the forefront of denunciations of the war and its aftermath. By their own logic, they should be applauding the end of the supposed “genocide” that our invasion brought about.) But even on the most sober accounting, as in this article by Matt Welch in Reason magazine, it is clear that the sanctions regime did increase mortality among children as well as adults. Welch concludes:

It seems awfully hard not to conclude that the embargo on Iraq has been ineffective (especially since 1998) and that it has, at the least, contributed to more than 100,000 deaths since 1990.

So, while 50,000 murdered people constitute a tragedy, it is meaningless to look at this figure outside the context of Iraq’s bloody history. That context includes not only the fact that far more people lost their lives–and far more brutally, for the most part–under Saddam. Equally important, it includes the fact that for the first time in a generation, the murderers and beheaders are hunted men rather than agents of a tyrannical government. The sacrifices now being made in Iraq need not be in vain, as long as Iraqis do not lose their commitment to freedom, and Americans do not lose their nerve.

One more thing: the L. A. Times article includes the intriguing observation that the large majority of people being murdered, by terrorists or, apparently, otherwise, are in Baghdad:

At least 2,532 people were killed nationwide last month. Of those, 2,155 — 85% — died in Baghdad.

The current population of Iraq is around 26 million, of whom approximately 6 million live in Baghdad. A murder rate of 377 x 12 = 4,524, for the 20 million people who live anywhere other than Baghdad, works out to 22.6 per 100,000. That’s around four times the murder rate in the United States, and about the same as the murder rates in cities like Chicago, Philadelphia and Milwaukee. So, if the Times’ figures are anywhere near accurate, it is absurd to say–as the Times article does–that “the entire country [is] a battleground.”


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