Allies accused of breaking Geneva Conventions on civilian losses

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The Independent Online

One year and 16 days after President George Bush declared the end to major hostilities in Iraq, the toll of American and British casualties continues to rise. Since the start of the invasion, 566 members of the American military and 211 US civilians have died. The British figures are 59 and 8.

One year and 16 days after President George Bush declared the end to major hostilities in Iraq, the toll of American and British casualties continues to rise. Since the start of the invasion, 566 members of the American military and 211 US civilians have died. The British figures are 59 and 8.

But at the same time thousands of others ­ men, women, the elderly and the very young ­ have been killed or maimed with far less fanfare. No one knows how many. They are Iraqi civilians, and the Americans and the British do not bother to keep count of the people they have "liberated" and then killed.

This is not usual in modern warfare. In most past conflicts, attempts were made to keep a tally of civilian losses. Legal experts say that, particularly in the case of Iraq, it is the duty of occupying powers to do so under the Geneva Conventions.

The Pentagon says it is not helpful to keep a "body count". Yet, there is no hesitation in giving numbers of Iraqi fighters, described as "Saddam loyalists" and "al-Qa'ida elements" who have supposedly been eliminated by the Allies.

Unofficial estimates of civilian casualties are available. The pressure group Iraq Body Count presents a daily update. It puts the maximum number of killed Iraqi civilians at 11,005, and the minimum at 9,148. But this does not include about 800 reportedly killed recently in Fallujah and 235 in Baghdad, or about 20 reported to have died in the British-controlled Basra region.

As the death toll continued to mount yesterday, Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, ruled out allowing MPs to vote on sending more troops amid reports that the British deployment could double to 15,000. He and other Cabinet ministers played down mounting speculation Tony Blair would step down as Prime Minister. Meanwhile Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, was forced back on the defensive by reports he had authorised the use of extreme interrogation techniques on Iraqi prisoners.

Iraq Body Count accepts its figures are inexact. "We only include deaths which have been reported by multiple media sources, and we are also careful in trying to avoid duplication," said Hamit Dardagan, a co-founder of the organisation. "The numbers are likely to be higher, but we do not want to speculate as to how many. But this really should be done by the coalition powers. They owe a responsibility to the people of Iraq."

Amnesty International, which published a report last week detailing the British Army's alleged involvement in the deaths of 37 civilians in disputed circumstances, says it is "astonishing" that the US and Britain are not keeping track of civilian casualties. "Unless this takes place it is very difficult to find out what is going on. We do not believe that it is not possible."

A spokesman for the US-based Human Rights Watch said: "What is essential is to find out why any civilian death or injury is happening. An investigation is needed into the tactics and weapons causing this."

Sir Menzies Campbell, the deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats and the party's spokesman on foreign affairs, said: "The failure to keep account of civilian casualties is monstrous. It gives the impression that the lives of ordinary Iraqi citizens are worth less than those of soldiers.

"It cannot be beyond the wit of the Coalition Provisional Authority to find a way to register Iraqi numbers. Not to do so appears contrary to the spirit of Geneva Convention."

Alan Simpson, Labour MP for Nottingham South, said: "Our refusal to count the deaths of Iraqi civilians fuels the belief in the Arab world that the peace is just a hidden war. In not counting Iraqi deaths, their lives appear to count for nothing. In such circumstances you can't blame Iraqis for believing that in our eyes they are still the enemy."

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