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Baghdad's Death Toll Assessed

A Times hospital survey finds that at least 1,700 civilians were killed and more than 8,000 injured in Iraq's capital during the war and aftermath.

May 18, 2003|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — At least 1,700 Iraqi civilians died and more than 8,000 were injured in Baghdad during the war and in the weeks afterward, according to a Los Angeles Times survey of records from 27 hospitals in the capital and its outlying districts.

In addition, undocumented civilian deaths in Baghdad number at least in the hundreds and could reach 1,000, according to Islamic burial societies and humanitarian groups that are trying to trace those missing in the conflict.

More than a month after the war's end, no official tally of civilian casualties has emerged. Amid the disorder attending the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime and the nascent American military occupation, one might never be made -- although such a reckoning could play an important role, in the eyes of a watching world, in weighing the conflict's moral costs.

The Times' count of civilian casualties spanned the five weeks beginning March 20, a period that includes the U.S. bombardment and subsequent ground battle for the Iraqi capital. It also includes fatalities from unexploded ordnance during the first 2 1/2 weeks after the city fell on April 9 and deaths as a result of injuries suffered earlier during the fighting. The survey covered all the large hospitals and most smaller specialty facilities in the city center, as well as those in remote districts within the municipal boundaries.

Those victims included in the toll died as a direct result of the conflict, but not necessarily at American hands. Medical officials said many civilians -- even a rough estimate of the numbers is impossible -- were killed by exploding Iraqi ammunition stored in residential neighborhoods, by falling Iraqi antiaircraft rounds that had been aimed at American warplanes, or by Iraqi fire directed at American troops.

U.S. military officials said repeatedly throughout the war that all possible care was being taken to avoid civilian casualties, and expressed regret over those that occurred. The American administration in Iraq, which is struggling to restore basic services and control street violence, has no plans to try to tally the civilian dead.

"We have no way of verifying independently whether people who were killed were civilians or not civilians," Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Dave Lapan said Friday.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to obtaining an accurate count of civilian deaths is distinguishing between Iraqi soldiers and civilians. In the waning days of the war, many Iraqi fighters continued to man their positions, but they dressed in civilian clothes and discarded their dog tags, according to accounts from witnesses in the city at the time.

But even soldiers who shed their uniforms and threw away their weapons often continued to carry some form of identification. The hospital figures did not consistently separate out men between the ages of 18 and 35, one common approach to limiting the inclusion of soldiers among the tally of civilians. But most said if they found any indication of military affiliation, they noted it in their patient records.

"Some of them would murmur to us they were soldiers, because they wanted us to be able to help find their families if they died," said Dr. Mahmoud Kubisi, a general surgeon at the 450-bed Karameh Teaching Hospital in the city center.More than a month after the war's end, Baghdad bears ubiquitous reminders of its dead. Hand-lettered death notices -- black banners printed in yellow and white -- flutter from trees, walls and lampposts, growing more faded each day. "In the name of God the merciful, and in accordance with God's will ..." most begin, going on to list the victim's name and briefly describe how he or she died.

For each of the conflict's dead, grief has spread widening ripples through the capital, where about one-fifth of Iraq's 24 million people live.

"Our home is an empty place," said 72-year-old Saler Hamzeh Ali Moussawi, 72, the patriarch of a family from the south of Baghdad that lost 11 of its members, ranging in age from 16 to 50, in a single catastrophic blow April 7 when their minivan was apparently hit by a U.S. tank shell. Family members recovered the badly decomposed bodies four days later.

"We who are left are like wild animals -- all we can do is cry out and cry out," said Moussawi, his lined face contorted with sorrow.

Most of Baghdad's hospitals managed to stay open throughout the fighting and its aftermath, although looting forced about half a dozen to temporarily close. As the dead and wounded poured in, conditions became more and more chaotic.

"The whole hospital was the emergency room," Dr. Bashir Mohammed Bashir, director of emergency medicine at Kindi General Hospital. "The nature of injuries was so severe -- one body without a head, someone else with their abdomen ripped open.... Human beings are so frail in the face of these weapons of war."

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