Thursday, July 22, 2004

Body Count 

In the wake of Downing Street's admission this past weekend that Iraqi corpses found in mass graves so far numbered roughly 5,000 -- as opposed to the figure of several hundred thousand repeatedly cited by British and American officials before and after the way -- Brendan O'Neill undertook a follow-up investigation for the Guardian:
Blair stated [in April] that the graves of 300,000 have already been found. Yet when I asked Joanna Levison of the US state department how many bodies have been exhumed, she said: "Through official procedures? None." Levison, who has taken over from Sandra Hodgkinson as head of the coalition's mass graves action plan, says that more than 270 grave sites have been reported and over 50 confirmed. At some of these there have been "community-led exhumations", where Iraqis have desperately dug around for the remains of loved ones, "but no coalition-led exhumations".

Jonathan Forrest of Inforce, the International Forensic Centre for the Investigation of Genocide at Bournemouth University, also says that no bodies have been exhumed, except unofficially by Iraqi communities.

Inforce is one of many teams of scientists from Europe that has carried out initial forensic tests on grave sites, to verify that they are graves and to estimate how old they might be. Forrest's team worked in Iraq for five months last year. "I do not believe that any forensic scientists have exhumed any bodies in Iraq at all," he says.

With no evidence by way of officially exhumed bodies, how did the coalition arrive at the estimate of 300,000 buried in mass graves? Levison says there is an "international consensus" that this number of Iraqis perished under the Ba'athists. Forrest believes that he might, inadvertently, have played a part in giving prominence to this figure. He says journalists in Iraq constantly asked his team how many were in the graves. "So we adopted the Human Rights Watch figure of 290,000, and rounded it up to 300,000" . . . .

The estimate of 300,000 Iraqis killed by the Ba'athists also includes deaths for which the western powers arguably bear some responsibility. According to the US state department, most of the graves discovered to date correspond to five major atrocities committed by the Saddam Hussein regime: the 1983 attack against Kurds of the Barzani tribe; the 1988 Anfal campaign against the Kurds, for which estimates of the numbers killed vary from 50,000 to 180,000; chemical attacks against Kurdish villages from 1986 to 1988; the 1991 massacre of Shia Muslims during their uprising at the end of the Gulf war; and the 1991 massacre of Kurds who fought for autonomy in northern Iraq after the Gulf war.

Saddam's brutal attacks on the Kurds in the 1980s occurred as part of the Iran-Iraq war, during which the Reagan administration supported and armed his regime. When that war ended in 1988 Saddam sought to consolidate his rule at home; in the Anfal campaign he sent forces to quell the Kurdish uprising in the north (supported by the Iranians), again with US consent. The massacre of the Shias in 1991 took place after they were encouraged by the first Bush administration to rebel following the first Gulf war, and then abandoned to their fate.

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