Wikileaks unwittingly debunks Iraq “civil war” meme

John Rosenthal Contributor
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During the darkest days of al-Qaeda/Baathist terror and sectarian violence in Iraq in 2006-2007, the American and European media were replete with predictions that the country was sliding into a full-fledged civil war or indeed had already done so. Supposedly scientific studies, like the 2006 Lancet study estimating that some 650,000 Iraqis had died as a consequence of the American-led intervention, fueled such speculation and even gave rise to accusations that the Bush administration and the American military were somehow responsible, whether directly or indirectly, for “genocide.”

The spin being given to the latest Wikileaks document dump obviously partakes of much the same narrative. Thus, for instance, the AP dispatch on the Iraq reports begins: “Military documents laid bare in the biggest leak of secret information in U.S. history suggest that far more Iraqis died than previously acknowledged during the years of sectarian bloodletting and criminal violence unleashed by the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.” But in fact, if the figures cited by Wikileaks are accurate, then the reports suggest no such thing. They suggest rather that roughly the same number of Iraqis have died in the violence as has already been acknowledged by U.S. or Iraqi authorities. The figures are, moreover, clearly incompatible with any talk of civil war — or much less “genocide” — in a country the size of Iraq.

According to the Wikileaks website, the Iraq reports document some 109,032 deaths. Of these, some 3,771 are fallen coalition forces. A presumably substantial number of the nearly 24,000 killed insurgents were non-Iraqis. This implies that the actual number of Iraqi deaths is in the vicinity of 100,000. (The AP and other, so to say, Wikileaks-compliant media manage to suggest a higher figure by citing a separate estimate by Iraq Body Count, an anti-Iraq War project that participated in the Wikileaks press conference “unveiling” the Iraq reports.)

It is useful to compare the Wikileaks Iraq mortality numbers to the estimated number of deaths in what was unquestionably a full-fledged and brutal civil war that captured roughly the same amount of the world’s attention in the early 1990s: namely, the 1992-1995 Bosnian civil war. According to the latest findings of Ewa Tabeau, the project leader of the Demographics Unit at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague, some 105,000 persons died in that war. Using a different methodology, the Sarajevo-based Research and Documentation Center has arrived at a similar estimate. It should be noted that these estimates are much lower than the numbers that were commonly cited in the western media during and immediately after the war. At the time, news reports commonly spoke of 200,000 or more deaths.

In short, according to the latest best estimates, the number of persons that died in the Bosnian war and the number of persons that have died in violence in Iraq following the toppling of the Baathist regime are roughly equal. However, the total population of Iraq is about seven times larger than that of Bosnia. Moreover, the period covered by the Iraq reports is about 25% longer. This is to say that the intensity of violence in Iraq has not only been far less than was the intensity of violence in Bosnia: it has, in effect, been around an order of magnitude less.

The stark difference is also reflected in the demographic evolution of the two countries as depicted in the below chart.

(Data Source: World Bank; Google Public Data Chart)

The evolution of the Bosnian population shows a clear downturn during the period of the war, presumably reflecting both war-related deaths and the outflow of refugees. During the period covered by the Wikileaks Iraq reports, the Iraqi population continued to grow. Indeed, its rate of growth appears to have remained constant.

Like the absolute mortality figures presented by Wikileaks, such vigorous population growth is obviously incompatible with the hypothesis of a civil war. What the numbers are compatible with, however, is what any informed observer knows was in fact occurring in Iraq: namely, a relatively limited, but exceptionally savage “insurgency,” whose principle mode of action consisted of terror attacks on the civilian population.

This too suggests an instructive comparison with the Bosnian war. It might be remembered that calls for foreign intervention in that war were largely the consequence of a series of bombings of public markets in Sarajevo. The bombings, which resulted in massive civilian casualties, were attributed to Bosnian Serb forces, although the latter denied responsibility. The last such attack, on August 28, 1995, was quickly followed by the initiation of NATO air strikes on Bosnian Serb targets.

During the last five years, the global public has been witness to a seemingly endless stream of gruesome images of similar atrocities in Baghdad and other Iraqi towns and cities. But instead of provoking calls for a renewed international resolve to protect the Iraqi population, each new massacre of civilians by al-Qaeda or Baathist “insurgents” provoked precisely the opposite: namely, increasing calls for American and coalition forces to disengage from Iraq and leave the Iraqi population at the mercy of the killers.

It is often said that truth is the first casualty of war. But in the case of the Iraq War, this is apparently not the case. The first, or perhaps last, casualty of the Iraq War appears rather to have been logic.

John Rosenthal writes on European politics and transatlantic relations. His work has appeared in such publications as Policy Review, The Weekly Standard, and the Wall Street Journal, as well as numerous new media venues. More of his work can be found at www.trans-int.com.