Thursday, October 27, 2005

Who murders Iraqi civilians? (A reality check)

(Guest-posted on the weblog of Norman Geras - Normblog)

(by Jeff Weintraub)

This brief item posted by Juan Cole on his Informed Comment weblog is curious for two reasons.

Iraq Body Count, Reuters says, estimates that 38 Iraqis die in violence every day. Over thirty-five years, that would amount to nearly 500,000 dead. In fact, it is estimated that the Baath party killed 300,000 Iraqis, so the current rate seems to be greater than the Baath rate. (The number of civilians killed by the Baath is probably in fact exaggerated. Only a few thousand bodies have been recovered from mass graves so far.)
First, it strikes me as misleading to say that 'the current rate seems to be greater than the Baath rate'. As Cole knows, most of the Iraqi civilians killed over the past year or so have been murdered by the so-called 'insurgents', and - as he himself has argued repeatedly - it seems clear that surviving Ba'athist organizational, military, and secret-police networks play a crucial role in coordinating (and probably funding) the 'insurgency'. (See, for example, here and here). Since, according to Cole, 'the Baathists along with some Salafi (Sunni fundamentalist) allies are behind the guerrilla war', then shouldn't this be described as a continuation of 'the Baath rate' and not an alternative to it?

More to the point, it's important not to lose sight of who is deliberately murdering Iraqi civilians in large numbers. To a considerable extent, it's the same criminals as before, now joined by Iraqi and foreign jihadists. (For one treatment of these obvious points and their apparently less obvious implications, see this discussion by Norman Geras.) Again, Cole knows this (he's said it), but many of his readers would prefer to forget it.

But what genuinely shocked me were the closing (parenthetical) remarks...

(The number of civilians killed by the Baath is probably in fact exaggerated. Only a few thousand bodies have been recovered from mass graves so far.)
Is he kidding? This reminds me of the whole body of 'revisionist' historiography about the Soviet Union during the 1970s and 1980s, which argued that the scale of Stalinist mass murder had been wildly exaggerated, and that it couldn't have amounted to more than a few tens or hundreds of thousands, certainly not millions. Since the opening of the Soviet archives after the collapse of the former Evil Empire, even most of the people who made such claims don't take them seriously any more. Granted, when Cole refers to 'only a few thousand bodies', he doesn't exactly say that these were all the civilians killed during the Ba'ath regime. But he knows very well that, however many bodies happen to have been disinterred so far, the scale of the slaughter was at a totally different order of magnitude. (In fact, he has repeatedly pointed out that Saddam Hussein's regime was guilty of genocidal mass murder.) So why on earth would he make such a dismissive remark? Cole is not generally the sort of person who minimizes or whitewashes such atrocities.

Of course, this criticism of his comments in no way detracts from the gravity of the situation in Iraq now, which includes a lot of terrible things and potentially dangerous tendencies. My impression is that Cole, who has always genuinely cared about the welfare of Iraqis, is becoming increasingly pessimistic about the prospects for any decent outcome... and despair can make any of us lose our intellectual and emotional balance sometimes.

Update at 10.05 on October 27: I suppose I took it for granted that there was no need to discuss the accuracy of the key 'facts' mentioned in Juan Cole's item, since it would be obvious that most of them were either misleading or flatly wrong. However, it may be worth addressing some of them explicitly. Brendan O'Leary has done so in a communication that he gives me permission to reproduce here.

It is the second sentence in Professor Cole's parenthetical remarks which is a source of misleading reasoning: "Only a few thousand bodies have been recovered from mass graves so far." The reasons for this statement's validity are owed to technical problems, not the absence of victims. Adequate money has not been set aside for the exhumation of graves - using proper DNA testing to verify who was killed. Nor are there adequate numbers of trained personnel. To exhume without proper procedures will not help families seeking to identify their lost ones.

Then, one should note (a) that 300,000 dead from genocide is the CPA's estimate, by its Human Rights Director, Sandy Hodgkinson - it is conservative (as such estimates should be); and (b) that the 300,000 estimate excludes those who died from Saddam's wars (in Kuwait, and against Iran), wars that he initiated. Lastly, it is highly unlikely that the insurgency will last as long as 35 years.


Right. And I'm sure that Juan Cole (unlike many of his readers) knows all this quite well. That makes his comments even more mysterious. (Jeff Weintraub)