Month: March 2004

One Year Later

A year’s gone by, and where are we with the war in Iraq? I know, I’ve read George Bush’s comments about what an evil guy Saddam Hussein was, how the Iraqi people wanted democracy, and now they’re going to get it (well, eventually). But I keep asking myself: “At what cost?” What did we pay and what did the Iraqi people pay for this limbo of car bombings and broken infrastructure, endless lines at the gas pumps, US raids on villages and neighborhoods where most of the people don’t know why the hell we’re there, the Halliburton scandal, the missing WMD? What did we pay for all of that?

The toll in human lives is inexact, but expressive. The website has a count:

US troop deaths since March 20, 2003 (the first day of the war): 572. US troop deaths since May 1, 2003 (when Bush landed on the aircraft carrier and told us that the war was largely over): 432. US troop deaths since Saddam was captured in December (and the Pentagon said they now had a lid on the insurgency): 114, which averages out to be about 1 dead US soldier per day. Coalition troop deaths: 101, which includes British, Spanish, Italian, Polish, Thai, and other troops.

Civilian deaths are harder to count, because the Pentagon doesn’t keep a tally as a matter of policy. Http:// keeps a conservative count, one that’s based strictly on media reports. Unfortunately, media reports often rely on what spokesmen at the Pentagon say.

Iraqi civilian deaths since March 20, 2003: 8,581 to 10,430.

That’s not counting other civilian deaths, like the 200 people who died in the terrorist bombings in Spain a couple of weeks ago. They’re just as much victims of this war as the Iraqi civilians who died in last week’s car bombing outside the Mount Lebanon Hotel in Baghdad.

In fact, the Mount Lebanon Hotel car bombing is an interesting example of how the Pentagon undercounts civilian deaths in Iraq. Initial reports of the bombing said 17 people had been killed. Later press reports upped the figure to at least 27, with unknown numbers of people buried in the rubble. It wasn’t just the hotel that was damaged: several houses were destroyed, a nearby apartment building was completely demolished, and the windows were blown out of a hospital across the street from the hotel. But the Pentagon insisted that only 7 people were killed, in spite of reporters at the scene saying they witnessed many more than 7 bodies pulled out of the rubble.

The Associated Press tells us that an estimated 660 people have died from suicide bombings in Iraq in the past year–more than the 474 people who’ve died in suicide bombings in Israel and Palestine in the past 3-1/2 years of the current Intifada.

The figures are complicated by the numbers of wounded. Battlefield triage has advanced light years from when the US military was involved in the Vietnam War, and many more US soldiers are saved today with wounds that might have killed them 35 years ago. But the Pentagon undercounts the wounded. UPI reporters talked to the head of the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, where most US wounded are evacuated from Iraq. They’ve treated 11,754 soldiers. Of that number, 9,651 are from Iraq and the rest from Afghanistan.

Approximately 10 percent of the soldiers evacuated from Iraq are treated for psychiatric problems. Given that some US bases in Iraq are under mortar fire every night, I can understand that. Imagine laying down to sleep with no body armor on, no helmet, no protection, and having to listen to incoming mortars. Imagine shooting up a car speeding towards your checkpoint, only to find it full of children…or Iraqi police–guys you just worked with the day before. Or see your buddy die from a roadside bomb. I can understand it.

What about the Iraqi wounded? There are no counts, and there’s no battlefied triage for them. Iraqi hospitals are still struggling to find enough beds for the sick, much less basic medicine, surgical equipment, or salaries for their doctors and nursing staff. The whole medical system is on the verge of collapse, in a worse state than it was staggered with the burden of economic sanctions under Saddam Hussein. The civilian casualty count tends to miss the Iraqis who are injured in attacks who die the next day, the day after, or a week later. It also misses the sick children dying of easily preventable diseases. If only they had enough penicillin and rehydration formulas. If only they had enough vaccines and clean needles. If only they’d had enough heart medicine for Grandma, who might have lived long enough to see her grandchildren born.

While we’re at it, why not look at the War in Afghanistan, too? That other war, the forgotten one. Dead US troops total 114, including two who died just last week in Operation Mountain Storm, a new offensive meant to punish mountain tribesmen in northwestern Pakistan because they won’t give up foreign terrorists they don’t have. The Pentagon keeps issuing press releases saying that they’ve killed and captured foreign terrorists and Al-Qaeda operatives in Pakistan, but they don’t give specific numbers. No passports are waved as proof. No evidence is presented. Reporters who are following the Pakistani troops say all the dead appear to be local tribesmen.

Last week three British citizens were released from the US-run internment camp at Guantanamo Bay. The London Observer interviewed them and printed their tale of horror. It’s worth reading, if you’re curious about what the cost of the War on Terror has been:,6903,1168937,00.html. Torture. Starvation. Forced marches through the desert with no food and water. People slowly dying of untreated war wounds. Suffocation inside a cargo container. Solitary confinement. Routine beatings. Being forced to confess crimes they didn’t commit. Tens of thousands dead, not the few hundred that the Pentagon reported. It’s all there, and the picture is ugly.

It’s a War of Terror, a War of Torture, whose primary beneficiaries are George W. Bush and crew, grubbing for million-dollar campaign contributions and, of course, wealthy Americans happily stashing away their millions of dollars in tax breaks, relieved that we’ve forgotten all about corporate scandals and Wall Street excesses.

Help me remember.


Http://;; “Explosion devastates Baghdad neighborhood,” Agence France Presse, 3/17/04; “Car Bomb Kills Dozens in Baghdad,” Sewell Chan, Washington Post Foreign Service, 3/18/04; “Car Bomb Kills 5 Iraqis in Basra,” Daniel Cooney, Associated Press, 3/18/04; “3 killed by car bomb near hotel in Basra; Toll from earlier blast in Baghdad down to 7 from 27,” Mike Dorning, Chicago Tribune, 3/19/04; “AP Tally: Iraq Suicide Bombs Killed 660,” Tarek Al-Issawi, AP, 3/18/04; “Residents Flee After Pakistan Village Raid,” Ahsanullah Wazir, AP, 3/17/04; “Revealed: the full story of the Guantanamo Britons,” David Rose, The London Observer, 3/14/04,,6903,1168976,00.html; and “How we survived in jail hell,” David Rose, The London Observer, 3/14/01,,6903,1168937,00.html.

Zarqawi: The Next Osama bin Laden?

The Muslim world watched, on live TV, as suicide bombers in Karbala and Baghdad killed 181 people and wounded more than 500. It was, as one British reporter put it, “the Shia’s 11 September.”

The absence of US troops and Iraqi police in the streets of Karbala on March 2, 2004, combined with Gen. Abizaid’s hasty excuse that the US had arrested a group of would-be car bombers the day before, only highlighted the incompetence of US forces on the ground in battling this “insurgency.” It must have been obvious to everyone watching that, with nearly two million people packed into the streets of Karbala, no cars would have been able to get through the crowds to the temple where the bombings took place.

The truth is, US forces themselves are a target that draws hostile fire; their presence was not welcome by Shiite religious and community leaders for that very reason. The same is true for the Iraqi police. And so the one thing that could most quickly lead to civil war in Iraq is now happening: Shiite groups are forming–or, in some cases, reconstituting–their own militias to provide security.

Such contradictions are part of fighting against a guerrilla insurgency. Unfortunately, the Bush administration is still trying to disguise the nature of the conflict in Iraq, during this election year here at home. And so they’ve had to find a bogeyman to blame for the bombings.

Enter the figure of Abu Musab Zarqawi. Or re-enter, to be accurate: Zarqawi is the guy Colin Powell mentioned in his pre-war presentation to the UN as Saddam Hussein’s link to Al Qaeda, the so-called high-level operative who passed through Baghdad in search of medical treatment. In Pentagon press conferences, Zarqawi and his group of “infiltrators” has become the convenient source of the bombing attacks.

But a closer examination of US claims about Zarqawi reveals many inconsistencies.

At first, the Bush administration portrayed Zarqawi as part of Osama bin Laden’s inner circle or most-trusted agents. But soon the backpedaling began. Zarqawi became an “associate” of Al Qaeda, a man who had trained in one of their camps. Then it turned out that his training was in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion in the late 1980s, long before the Taliban and Al Qaeda entered the scene. Other terrorism experts describe him as a “fellow traveler” of Al Qaeda or inspired by Osama bin Laden. One Arab specialist, a professor at the University of Michigan, told the Washington Post that Zarqawi actually appears to be “a rival of the bin Laden group,” with his own terrorist gang. This is a far cry from original Bush administration contentions that Zarqawi was Osama’s lead link to Saddam Hussein.

Two weeks ago, US forces in Iraq claimed to have captured a computer disk containing the draft of a letter to Al Qaeda requesting help in waging a Sunni jihad against the Shiites, Kurds, Iraqi police, and US forces. The Pentagon was quick to name Zarqawi as the author of the letter, and the US media raised few questions about either the authenticity of the document or the likelihood that Zarqawi wrote it. Even the most basic question–how can they know who authored a computer file that lacks a signature?–went unasked.

Terrorism experts and Arabic scholars, however, have been scratching their heads over this letter and the accompanying US claims. They were quick to point out that the letter was a plea for Al Qaeda to get involved in the insurgency in Iraq, which contradicts Bush administration insistence that Al Qaeda is heavily involved in suicide bombings that started late last year.

US officials have called Zarqawi a leader of Ansar al-Islam, a fundamentalist group in Northern Iraq whose camps were targeted by US bombs shortly after the invasion. Ansar is frequently cited by the Bush administration as Al Qaeda’s proxy in Iraq, but Ansar is not a Sunni Muslim group like Al Qaeda; they’re a Kurdish fundamentalist group, whose targets have historically been Kurdish secular parties, particularly the KDP and the PUK. It seems highly unlikely that they would call for a Sunni jihad in Iraq.

US officials have admitted that Zarqawi’s “vision” differs from bin Laden’s. While bin Laden wants to wage war on the West, as embodied by the US and Europeans, Zarqawi sees Israel and Jews as the prime target. If so, one would expect Zarqawi to be active in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, working with Hamas, or possibly in Lebanon, and not purportedly sneaking around in Iraq, bombing Shiite Muslim shrines.

And then the Zarqawi theory reached the level of high comedy last week when a group of 12 Sunni anti-US militias issued a communique that claims Zarqawi is dead, killed in a US bombing attack last year. Zarqawi’s family confirmed to US officials and reporters that they haven’t heard from him for four months. Deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Brigadier General David Rodriguez told a group of reporters, “There is no direct evidence whether he is alive or dead at this point, that we have.” The US media, naturally, failed to ask why, without evidence that the man is even alive, the Pentagon is making such elaborate claims about Zarqawi’s involvement in the suicide bombings in Iraq.

Meanwhile, the broader charade continues. Paul Bremer still claims that foreign “infiltrators” are responsible for the attacks, while Brigadier General Martin Dempsey, who commands the 1st Armored Division in Baghdad, calls that a “misconception”–a very diplomatic way of saying Bremer is lying for political reasons. Dempsey still insists that his troops are primarily facing a home-grown insurgency–another diplomatic term that deflects media attention away from the continuing guerrilla war in Iraq.

Sources: “The day of desecration: how bombs tore apart a festival of hope,” Justin Huggler, The Independent, 3/3/04, story=497330&host=3&dir=75; “Purported Qaeda Letter Denies Role in Iraq Blasts,” Reuters, 3/3/04; “Terror Suspect’s Ambitions Worry US Officials,” Walter Pincus, Washington Post, 3/3/04, p A22, language=printer; “Al-Qaeda or not, al-Zarqawi’s worth $10m,” Ritt Goldstein, Inter Press Service, printed in Asia Times,; “Iraq attacks: Is this the mastermind?” Paul Reynolds, BBC News Online, 3/2/01,; “Leaflet Says Extremist Al-Zarqawi Is Dead,” Lee Keath, Associated Press, 3/4/04; “No direct evidence Zarqawi is alive or dead: general,” Agence France Presse, 3/4/04; “US Divided Over Foreign Agents in Iraq,” Jim Krane, Associated Press, 3/5/04.

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