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Why the Numbers Don't Add Up in Iraq

The Pentagon's fondness for secrecy along with partisan agendas in Baghdad often lead to contortions with death tolls and other details.

September 10, 2006|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — In this besieged capital, it was a rare good-news story: Killings had plummeted by as much as 50% since U.S. and Iraqi forces hit the streets last month in a show of strength after the sectarian bloodbath of July.

"We're actually seeing progress out there," Army Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, the chief military spokesman here, said when making the announcement.

Not so fast.

Last week, Iraqi officials released new figures showing the city morgue had received more than 1,500 victims of violent death in August -- a significant drop of about 17% from the record of more than 1,800 killings in July, but hardly a great leap forward.

How the U.S. military arrived at the 50% figure remains a mystery. Commanders won't release the raw data, saying such specifics could help the enemy.

In the volatile atmosphere of today's Iraq, numbers can lie and statistics can be notional, be they from U.S. or Iraqi sources.

Government agencies here rarely keep reliable statistics. Fear and partisan agendas sway Iraqi officials, making them reluctant to divulge what little data they collect. The U.S. military's fondness for secrecy tends to clash with the brass' demands for "metrics" to quantify any progress.

This tension often leads to curious contortions of numbers and nomenclature.

During weekly news briefings deep inside barricaded compounds, commanders regularly display slick charts, multicolored bar graphs and PowerPoint presentations, all heralding good news.

"One more indicator that operations are in fact reducing the amount of attacks on civilians is shown here on this graph," Caldwell assured reporters the other day, pointing to a bar chart dutifully placed on an easel by a stone-faced uniformed subordinate. But all the numbers had been carefully scrubbed. They were classified.

"We typically characterize trends in ways that do not divulge raw data," explained a military spokesman, Lt. Col. Barry Johnson.

Commanders have consistently declined to say how many civilians have been killed by U.S. forces, although officials have acknowledged tracking the number. Avoiding the Vietnam-era stigma of "body counts," authorities also refuse to divulge "kill" totals for suspected insurgents.

A similar imprecision applies when it comes to describing the enemy.

At the conflict's outset, U.S. officials used phrases such as "dead-enders," Saddam Hussein "loyalists" and "foreign terrorists" in an attempt to label the armed opposition a marginal force.

Gradually, as it became clear that Iraq was in the midst of a protracted guerrilla war, the U.S. military rejected the title "resistance," with its connotations of legitimacy, and settled on "insurgents" or "terrorists" as operative labels.

But the evolving nature of the battle has thrown those terms into question too.

"The core conflict in Iraq [has] changed into a struggle between Sunni and Shia extremists," the Pentagon wrote in an unusually frank report to Congress last month. "Death squads and terrorists are locked in mutually reinforcing cycles of sectarian strife."

Trained and equipped by the U.S. government, Iraq's security forces have been infiltrated by thousands of militiamen loyal to Shiite clerics and factions. There is widespread agreement among military commanders that Shiite militiamen are behind most death squad killings.

The term "death squad" entered public discourse during the dirty wars in Central America to describe clandestine assassins who often plied their trade with the tacit approval of government authorities in the region. But the issue of Shiite death squads is an extremely touchy one for the U.S.-backed, Shiite-dominated government.

Members of the fiercest death squad are allegedly recruited from the Al Mahdi militia, a group under the command of Muqtada Sadr, a virulently anti-U.S. cleric whose supporters are key players in the ruling coalition of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki.

U.S. officials were reluctant to use the term until July, when Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top military commander here, and U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad issued a joint statement condemning "in the strongest possible language the recent attacks by terrorists and death squads against innocent Iraqi civilians."

The following day, Caldwell used the term repeatedly when speaking with reporters -- but he applied the term to both Sunni and Shiite Arab groups.

"We're really not boring in on what organization they're from," said Col. Michael Shields, commander of the Army's 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team.

By unmooring death squads from the context of government-backed Shiite militias, U.S. officials have redefined the problem -- and avoided a direct confrontation with the U.S.-backed Iraqi leadership.

Like their U.S. colleagues, Iraqi authorities have demonstrated an adroitness with numbers, terms and dates.

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