Early reports of casualties in Iraq provided only a scattershot picture of damage to residential areas and loss of civilian life, not a clear sense of scope or scale. Only on February 11, after four weeks of intense bombing, did Iraqi officials acknowledge that civilian deaths were in the range of 5,000-7,000. Then, on February 13, two US “smart bombs” smashed into a Baghdad bomb shelter, incinerating hundreds of women and children gathered there.

The US is making no information available on Iraqi or Kuwaiti civilian casualties. The official coalition figure of Iraqi soldiers killed after three weeks of war was 79. But tanks and armored personnel carriers have crews of three and four each; “smart” weapons like Maverick missiles are designed to kill all the occupants, as the “friendly fire” deaths of seven US Marines in one incident demonstrated. The US claims that in the first four weeks it has destroyed 600 Iraqi tanks alone.

Both Washington and Baghdad have an interest in playing down casualties. The US wants to reinforce the image of “surgical” destruction of military targets, and to avoid stirring resentment among the populations of the Arab states, including its coalition partners. Iraq, for its part, wants to minimize demoralizing information.

Refugee reports do not support claims by some opponents of the war that casualties have been in the tens and hundreds of thousands in the first weeks of the war. Yet they do make clear that residential areas of Iraqi towns have been struck by missiles and bombs, killing and wounding many, and that everyone suffers from lack of electricity and shortages of water and fuel. Reuters’ Bernd Debusmann reported from Baghdad in early February that the city had been turned into “a living hell.” Doctors working in Iraq report harrowing, overcrowded conditions in hospitals trying to cope with wounded and dying civilians and soldiers.

The Washington Post reported February 2 that “food still appears plentiful, with fruit and vegetables on sale in shops that are still operating.” Prices, though, have skyrocketed: Rice that went for 60 cents a kilo now costs about $15. Fuel is no longer available for sale. Electricity has been knocked out in the major cities and towns, and with it water supplies and refrigeration.

The southern port city of Basra, closer to the Kuwaiti front, has suffered greater devastation than Baghdad, according to accounts of fleeing Indian construction workers. They report that bombs have hit virtually all of Basra’s infrastructure, including refineries and grain warehouses, and dismembered bodies lying amidst rubble are a common sight. Shelters are not equally available, especially in poorer neighborhoods. Much of the bombing in southern Iraq has been the mission of B-52s, hardly more accurate than Scud missiles but far more destructive.

By February 4, B-52s had started bombing the outskirts of Baghdad as well as the south. Debusmann reported a midnight raid in which “enormous blasts shook houses on the fringes of the city and send gusts of hot air across the sprawling capital of 4 million people.”

US forces have targeted main roads, destroying dozens of civilian trucks along the Baghdad-Amman highway. A US officer asserted it was impossible to distinguish between those carrying civilian cargoes and those carrying military materiel. After raiding a 15-mile long traffic jam on the Baghdad-Basra road, one pilot said “there were too many burning vehicles to count.”

The impact of the war on Iraq’s civilian population is by no means confined to the deaths and injuries directly caused by the bombs. Western relief workers fear that food and water shortages and the breakdown of sanitation may lead to acute diarrheal epidemics, respiratory infections, protein and calorie deficiencies, and possibly cholera, especially among children. Jonathan Fine, director of Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), completed a mission to Baghdad two days before the start of the war. He believes that “large numbers of children are at risk.” He told Middle East Report that medical equipment and basic vaccines were lacking, and that hospitals were short-staffed because many doctors have been sent to the front. PHR also reports that Iraqi troops in occupied Kuwait have stripped hospitals and clinics of equipment and medicines, and Kuwaiti doctors are reportedly forced to give preferential treatment to Iraqi soldiers.

An international relief agency official based in Baghdad and now monitoring the situation from Amman told Middle East Report that infectious diseases like polio and dysentery had already surfaced before the war started, and could spread rapidly now because toilets cannot be flushed, garbage is piling up in the streets, there is little water, the food chain has been disrupted and the UN embargo has halted imports of medical supplies. “What we need,” he says, “is a bubble of tranquility to bring in supplies,” and a guarantee that certain areas will be “islands of civilian safety.”

In the weeks to come, more information and details about the impact of the war on civilians will likely become available. Human rights organizations have begun to document civilian casualties. Independent and accurate information, not exaggeration, is crucial to mobilize assistance for civilian victims in Iraq and Kuwait, and to demonstrate to people in the US that the appalling human costs of this war go beyond the dead and wounded among US forces.

Civilians outside of the immediate war zone are feeling the impact of this war as well. Iraqi missile attacks on Israeli and Saudi neighborhoods have received wide media coverage. Less attention has gone to Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza. They have endured a nearly total curfew for more than three weeks, the most extensive in 24 years of military occupation. The demand for a ceasefire in the war needs to include an insistence that Israel lift these unwarranted punitive measures.

February 14, 1991

How to cite this article:

Joost Hiltermann "Calculating “Collateral Damage”," Middle East Report 169 (March/April 1991).

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