Leading article: The true measure of the US and British failure

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One of the many shameful aspects of the war in Iraq has been the failure of US and British forces to register civilian casualties. Both the US and the British authorities insist that they have no obligation to do so - and, if this is correct, that should surely change. But the absence of any reliable figures has had several malign effects.

It conveys the impression, first, that the invaders have scant regard for Iraqi lives. The US and British forces, rightly, count their own dead meticulously; they give them flag-draped coffins and military funerals. Those Iraqis whose lives have been cut short, however, are simply not recognised as casualties of the war. They are seen, in that disgraceful term, as no more than collateral damage. Like the pictures from Abu Ghraib, the lack of authoritative figures for Iraqi deaths discredits the elevated humanitarian motives that the US and Britain cited as justification for military action.

Second, the lack of any record of civilian casualties is tantamount to concealment. It means that information about Iraqi deaths is elusive unless a reporter happens to be there at the time. It also means that any figures that are produced can be dismissed as inaccurate. It makes it easier for those who choose to do so to close their eyes to the whole human cost of the invasion.

Third, the lack of an official record fosters inaccuracy. Late last year, the British medical publication, The Lancet, published an article estimating civilian casualties in Iraq as in excess of 100,000. That figure had been reached by extrapolating from a small sample of incidents and locations. While never completely discredited, those figures were widely doubted, allowing the authorities in the US and Britain to dismiss them as propaganda. That this was an honest effort to estimate civilian casualties and had been undertaken to fill a lamentable gap in the records, was thereby obscured.

Now, with the publication of a survey by the non-government US and British group, Iraq Body Count, we probably have the most accurate and responsible estimate of Iraqi civilian casualties we are likely to get. According to IBC, almost 25,000 Iraqis have been killed as a direct result of the US-led intervention in the two years to March 2005. Of these, it found, more than one third were killed by US-led forces, another third by "criminals", and one-tenth by "insurgents". The definition of civilians includes army and police recruits and serving police, but not serving military or combatants.

The 25,000 tally closely matches the findings of a UN-funded study last year, which estimated conflict-related deaths at 24,000 since the invasion. Because the IBC survey relies to a large extent on figures from Baghdad and the surrounding area, however, it may understate the toll. Understated or not, the numbers compiled by the IBC expose the grievous human cost of the US-led invasion and the ill-planned occupation that followed.

And the prognosis, alas, is for worse. A breakdown of the figures shows that almost one third of civilian deaths occurred during the initial invasion - a combination of air strikes and ground advances that the US had presented as so accurate, clinical and high-tech that the civilian death toll would be negligible. But while some 6,000 civilians died in the first year of the occupation, the human cost of the second year was almost double that, as the violence steadily increased.

The recent proliferation of suicide attacks augurs badly for any fall in civilian casualties in the near future. If the US and Britain intended to make Iraq freer and safer, not only for the benefit of the outside world but for the benefit of Iraqis, this survey shows just how disastrously they have failed.

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