TOPICS : Balancing the Iraq equation

Susan Wood

A humanitarian aid worker’s death in Iraq last week is spurring calls for a public accounting of civilian casualties by the US government and more attention to the issue by the US media.

Marla Ruzicka, 28, who fought to obtain recognition and compensation for Iraqis injured in US 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 US forces and that the number is important. “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. Her 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.

Their numbers are growing. Among the latest to call for such statistics are 24 public health experts from six countries, including the US and Britain, who last month castigated those two governments for their “irresponsible” failure to investigate Iraqi civilian casualties. The Lancet, a British publication, estimated that about 100,000 civilians had died, over half of them women and children. 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 began recruiting teams of Iraqi researchers, whose number grew to 150, who 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 US Senator Patrick Leahy from Democratic Party, Ruzicka succeeded in obtaining a record-setting $20 million for Iraqi war victims. The cost of the Iraq war is expected to reach $207.5 billion by the end of September, according to the National Priorities Project.

Amid the tributes to Ruzicka that were featured prominently in the US 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. The Lancet study, however, was dismissed by the British government and buried by the US 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 than the Lancet study’s findings. By continuing to ignore the most reliable estimate yet produced, media are contributing to the US 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. 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. — IPS