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Newsnight Tuesday, 8 July, 2003, 11:24 GMT 12:24 UK
Human cost of the war

The first full audit of civilian causalities of the war in Iraq has been released.

The coalition forces said they did everything to avoid death and injuries to civilians.

Paul Wood reports on the human cost of the conflict.

The coalition says this was a war fought in part for Iraqis. Some Iraqis paid the price. What was the true human cost of the war? Estimates vary widely. Work is being done now which may bring us closer to finding out. Many of those killed in the American air war like here. The coalition waged what was described as the most accurate bombing campaign in history. Certainly great pains were taken to avoid hitting, schools, hospitals and blocks of flats. Exactly how many Iraqis did die in the war will influences how just that war is seen, not least by the Iraqis themselves. The most reliable figures so far are the work of this woman, Marla Ruzicka. She has founded her own international charity The Survey of Civilian Deaths in Iraq. This family is her saddest case. She is returning to see relatives of 43 people killed in a single missile strike on a house outside Baghdad.

MARLA RUZICKA: (Survey of Civilian Deaths in Iraq)
This poor man, after losing his arm, during the Iran/Iraq war lost everyone in his family. Only he remains. So, when we look at numbers and we try to tally them up and see what do numbers mean, these are the stories and these are the families. Their lives are affected forever.

Saed Abbas shows me pictures of his wife and six children, now dead. In the same incident his brother lost his six children, his sister lost seven. They left Baghdad for the country because they thought it would be safer. 27 members of one extended family and 16 friends and neighbours. 43 in total all perished.

When the missile hit, the whole house collapsed around us. I was shouting for my family. No-one replied. I could only hear screaming. There were just four survivors.

Her two brothers died on either side of her. Trapped nearby powerless to help was Kasim. I asked who was to blame, President Bush or President Saddam?

I'm angry at whoever caused this. Mostly the pilot. Why did he attack this house? Is it a military target? Did bombing us cause the fall of Baghdad and the overthrow of Saddam?

The house now. Testimony to the destructive power of modern weaponry. Those who survived were next to this outer wall which remained partially intact. What happened here will be included in the most comprehensive and methodological survey of civilian deaths in Iraq to date.

The work we do is extremely accurate. We go door-to-door, we check hospital records and death certificates to verify. Our work is very accurate. We know if we are trying to get assistance to people, if we have one false claim it could throw out all of our claims.

More than 150 of the survey volunteers are working all across Iraq to scrupulously document each case. This is the southern city of Najaf. They ask for death certificates. They take precise details who died and how. Only those deaths they are certain of will make it into the total. This doctor arrives to ask more questions. He is the senior survey officer here. Four people died at the doors of this home-made shelter. Within sight of safety, just seconds too late.

Did you say there were four people killed here, because you hoped to get money from the Americans. Some people think that the number of deaths is high because people think they will get compensation?

Nothing can compensate for those who died. Even if they gave me the whole world it won't make up for one finger of my father. All I want is money to rebuild the house. My dad is gone.

The house was not a military target. The family accept there had been one nearby.

Why did this happen? Just because Saddam sent republican guards down here, four of my family have to get killed?

Nearby an Iraqi military vehicle destroyed by American fire. Perhaps the shrapnel that sprayed the surrounding houses came from explosives on the truck, not missiles fired from an American war plane. Either way, coalition forces were the not solely to blame for Iraqi civilian casualties. We are an hour's drive from Najaf. Most of the destruction here was done in ground fighting. Necessarily more messy than the air campaign. The survey records everything. Even if it's just damage to buildings, where there is no loss of life.

DR SAIF al-KHARAJI: (Survey of Civilian Deaths in Iraq)
Just for the recommendation of any degree of damage in this area. House damage, shop damage. Handicap patient.

This is a comprehensive survey. It's everything that happened


The survey team are the only officials people see. Some have a message for the Americans.

I am expecting to get money. They are our only hope. Of course, Saed Abbas wants compensation for his terrible loss. He has written to the Americans asking what they'll do to help.

I have asked for a lump sum and they can decide how much I get. We haven't rebuilt anything yet. We are selling what possessions we have left to pay for treating the injured. We don't have anything.

But the US military has written to say there will be no compensation. Instead, a tribunal might investigate why the plane fired on their house. The top American general in Iraq was asked by Newsnight to explain the policy. But first, did the coalition have their own estimate of how many civilians had died?

Lt GENERAL RICK SANCHEZ: (Coalition Military Commander)
No, we do not know what the exact numbers were. Even now, when we conduct engagements, normally what will happen, according to the cultural beliefs, the dead are removed very quickly, so we cannot establish those numbers. At this point, we are not attempting to establish the numbers of Iraqis who were killed during the conflict. In terms of compensation, payments are not standard during wartime. That is something that would have to be addressed later on, especially in co-ordination with an Iraqi government once it is established.

Marla Ruzicka's work has managed to persuade the US for some money to go the innocent victims of the war. She is lobbying to make sure money is paid directly to families, not just spent on big reconstruction projects.

The US does want to do the right thing in Iraq. The best way to do that is by starting with people. We need to show them that we want to have a positive role in this country. The way to do it is help people who suffered losses get on and reconstruct their lives. How can people have reconciliation and closure when they are worried about how they are going to pay for milk for their child? They are going to be angry until somebody says, "We are sorry. What can we do to help you?"

The volunteers have counted a number of deaths. They think the final number will probably be a little over 4,000. Some organisations are adding up all the media reports of individual deaths. They are getting a figure of about 7,000. That's the least reliable method, and most reliable so far, the survey of civilian deaths, is heading towards a total of about 4,000. For those who opposed the invasion of Iraq, that's confirmation there's no such thing as a clean war. For others, it's a relatively small price to pay for the overthrow of one of the most bloody dictatorships of modern times. No records survive at the Ministry of Health in Baghdad. Looters saw to that. It will take a long time to get things working again, but on the Arab street, from Cairo to Damascus, you will hear that millions died in the war. That's why it's vital eventually to find a credible figure for the Iraqi dead.

Dr NAGHAM MUHSIN: (Iraq Ministry of Health) (TRANSLATION):
That number is part of our future. These are people who were innocent. They were civilians in their homes or shopping. We should acknowledge that. We should at least know their names, even if it's not going to be for compensation. Their names should be recorded for history, so they won't vanish, they won't disappear.

Mere numbers won't relieve the pain of the bereaved, but an accurate body count will help money to go to the families who need it, and a true understanding of the past may be what's required for reconciliation between Iraqis and Americans.

Newsnight can be seen on BBC Two at 2230 BST 2130 GMT, or in Real video, either live or on demand, by clicking on the latest programme button.

Paul Wood
examines the civilian cost of the Iraq war

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