BAGHDAD — As U.S. forces begin to scale back in Iraq, the military is becoming increasingly reliant on Iraqi forces to report a wide array of crucial statistics, from the number of attacks on the local infrastructure to how many Iraqi civilians have been killed or wounded.
And just as Iraqi forces have had a mixed record in fighting insurgents, they have been spotty at providing data from the regions where they have taken command.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, December 01, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 3 inches; 136 words Type of Material: Correction
Iraq statistics: An article in Friday's Section A about the compiling and reporting of data about violence in Iraq said Iraqi forces submit about 70 reports of violent incidents in their areas each month, compared with 200 from U.S. troops. The figures were for daily reports, not monthly. In addition, the article said U.S. commanders and the Iraqi government received no reports of incidents from Iraqi field commanders for two weeks in October because of a temporary shutdown of Iraqi satellite communications. Officials say they did receive some reports by other means, such as fax. Also, the story quoted a U.S. Army official accusing anti-American cleric Muqtada Sadr of intentionally inflating civilian casualties over the summer to discredit the Iraqi government. The quote was referring to Health Ministry officials loyal to the cleric, not Sadr himself.
Iraqi officials have been reporting far higher civilian death totals than those reported by U.S. forces, and aides to American commanders now acknowledge that the U.S. military probably had been undercounting such casualties.
Strategists for Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander here, said they were beginning to incorporate Iraqi tallies into their own, but underscored that though the totals might be different, the trends in both Iraqi and American numbers show dramatic decreases in civilian deaths since the summer.
Also troubling to the United States is the frequent failure of Iraqi forces to report data on incidents occurring in the regions where they take the lead in providing security. In sectors handed over to Iraqi army and police forces, U.S. planners have seen a sharp decrease in overall data, severely hampering their ability to determine whether their military plan is succeeding.
The questionable nature of the Iraqi-compiled data, which is expected to become even more problematic as U.S. forces shrink back to pre-buildup levels over the next six months, has placed American commanders in an awkward position.
The more successful they are in turning over military responsibility to Iraqis, the U.S. officials think, the less likely they are to get reliable evidence that their techniques are working.
Statistics have been a key component in Petraeus' effort to convince the American public and elected officials in Washington that U.S.-led forces are finally making progress in Iraq.
Unreliable data also poses a practical problem. Petraeus and Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, who is in charge of day-to-day operations in Iraq, receive extended daily briefings on the number and location of attacks, the performance of essential services and discoveries of weapons caches, and use the information to make adjustments to their war plan.
"Our presence decreases and we have a greater reliance on information that is to be provided from the host nation, Iraqis, so we can maintain situational awareness on what is going on," said Army Lt. Col. Todd Gesling, a top officer on Petreaus' planning staff. "That's the crux of the problem. . . . The Iraqis don't have a robust culture of reporting things."
Aides said charts showing the rise and recent fall in violence and casualties have become regular features of the general's presentations to visiting congressional delegations, and are expected to feature prominently in the military's March update in Washington, as they did during Petraeus' high-profile congressional testimony in September.
Even with about 160,000 troops still in Iraq, the United States' own record-keeping has been controversial, with Iraqi sources and international observers often reporting much higher levels of civilian casualties.
For much of the time after the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion, American officials said they did not track civilian deaths. Petraeus' aides say his counterinsurgency strategy, which focuses on protecting the Iraqi population, has led them to try to compile such figures accurately to gauge whether the troop buildup has made people safer.
The conflicting figures frequently arise from incidents in which the U.S. asserts it has killed insurgents whereas Iraqi officials and witnesses say civilians died.
This month, local leaders in Tarmiya, north of Baghdad, said about 40 members of a citizens group working with U.S. forces to flush insurgents from the area were doing a nighttime assault when they were killed by U.S. forces who mistook them for rebels. American officials said 25 people died in the attack, all insurgents.
Similarly, in October, the Iraqi government lashed out at the U.S. military after clashes in Sadr City. Iraqi officials said several civilians were killed, but U.S. forces called the dead "criminals."
Independent monitoring groups have accused the United States of playing down civilian death counts to make the troop buildup look more successful. But with no official Iraqi system in place to tally civilian death figures, there remains little agreement on the actual number. Estimates have ranged from the tens of thousands to 1.2 million dead.
Aides to Petraeus and Odierno, speaking at a two-day round table with military writers here at military headquarters at Camp Victory, acknowledged that they probably had undercounted civilian casualties in Iraq and said they had changed the way they gather such information, using data gathered from Iraqi sources.