Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Making Islands Where No Island Should Go

Any Man's Death Diminishes Me, Because I Am Involved In Mankind

In July,
I posted about the results of the Iraq Body Count report, which put the estimated civilian deaths in Iraq for the first two years of the invasion at roughly 25,000. Since then, the same group estimates the number to be in the neighborhood of 27,000-30,000. In order to help us to contextualize this level of carnage, I compared what this rate of death would look like transposed on America's population - which is roughly 12 times the size of Iraq's. If this level of civilian death were felt in the US, it would be akin to losing approximately 330,000 civilian lives over the course of two years. That would be like killing every man, woman and child in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Then there is the Johns Hopkins study, published in Lancet, which put the total number of deaths in the neighborhood of 100,000. The Johns Hopkins study only counted from March 2003 to September 2004, however. In American terms, that would be like losing 1,200,000 million people over the course of a year and a half.

In June, the Iraqi Interior Ministry, which only began keeping track of civilian deaths in August 2004, released
a report that between August of that year and May 31, 2005, 8,174 Iraqi civilians died as a result of violence surrounding the simmering conflicts. That is an average of a little more than 800 a month, though the Iraqi Interior Ministry reports specifically exclude both Iraqi soldiers and Iraqi civilians killed during American military operations. It also excludes Iraqi soldiers and civilians killed during military operations conducted by the Iraqi military. That would be equivalent to losing approximately 9,500 American civilians a month over 10 months, but the number would obviously be higher if it included the deaths of civilians unintentionally caused by the respective military operations.

I cannot say which set of numbers are the most accurate, though I would say that the rates reported by the Iraqi Interior Ministry do line up with those put out by the Iraq Body Count group - though over different time periods. None of the options is particularly encouraging. In addition to putting the deaths in American terms to better understand just how dire the situation has been for Iraqis,
this article by Tom Lasseter of Knight Ridder gives a sense of how this level of violence, horror and uncertainty impacts the everyday lives of ordinary Iraqis.

No Man Is An Island, Entire Of Itself

Samira Kubba wakes early each day, though she's not sure why. A year ago, she would have been busy helping her husband prepare for work, shopping for her family, meeting friends, planning the celebration for breaking the daily fast after sunset during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Today, she knows she won't leave the house, except in case of emergency: a child in danger, the food supply running low. Even then, the excursion will be carried out with military precision: a timed route, covered by machine guns. She won't stop to chat with friends, she won't look in the eyes of anyone she passes, she won't stop for tea at a favorite cafe - all parts of daily life for her as little as months ago.

"We do not think about how we live our days in Baghdad these days. We wonder whether we will survive them," she said. "No place outside this house is safe."

Two and a half years after the city fell during the U.S.-led invasion, the world is shrinking for many residents, if not most of them. First they felt confined to their region, then their city, then their neighborhoods, then their blocks. Now, it's down to their houses, and, once inside, rich and poor are quick to point out the safest rooms, the places where their entire families now sleep at night.
Every Man Is A Piece Of The Continent, A Part Of The Main

Nadim Shehadi, who runs the London-based Chatham House research center's Middle Eastern program, remembers living through the stresses during the troubles in Beirut, Lebanon. But he sees something unique in Baghdad these days.

"Before, there's always been a sense that there was someone you could trust, someone who you could count on for help," he said. "Baghdaddees don't have this."

Resident fear insurgents and their car bombs and random gunfire. They fear Iraqi police, who are famously corrupt. They fear criminals, who've turned kidnapping - especially of children - into a prime business. They fear soldiers - both U.S. and Iraqi - who shoot innocent civilians every day, fearing they might be insurgents. Even their own guards have to be feared: Desperation destroys loyalties, and the price of release for a bodyguard's child can be the deliverance of a rich man's son.

"I cannot sleep at night," Falah Kubba said, his eyelids sagging and bruised from rubbing. "In bed, my wife rests on one side, and my new second wife - a pump-action shotgun - stays in my arms on the other side. I am up all night, aiming at the doors every time there is a bump. This is no way to live. It is a way to die."
And Therefore Never Send To Know For Whom The Bell Tolls, It Tolls For Thee

After the fifth child on their block was kidnapped this summer, he cleared out an old office connected to his house as a play area for neighborhood children. The doors and windows are covered by iron gates, chains and padlocks. A family member with a locked and loaded AK-47 automatic kneels in front of the only entrance. While the children play - the youngest with a collection of push toys, the older ones with bicycles or balls, the teenagers sitting and chatting on the steps to the second floor - Falah keeps his second wife at hand.

"I'm a businessman," he explained. In fact, his brother was executed under Saddam Hussein and he was arrested, for insisting that the international business currency should be American dollars, not Iraqi dinar. "These days I eat my money, and my business is to keep my family together, and alive."

The Kubbas lives in Mansur, an area of large homes with marble entryways and exterior walls decorated with statues. Across town, in the middle-class and extremely dangerous Amariyah neighborhood, Huda al Zubaydi walks her children to school each morning. Afterward, she grabs a spot among other parents sitting or leaning against the school's security wall. They do this every day, and they wait until the final bell, waiting to walk their kids back home.

"The shootings, the bombings, the kidnappings: It's all too dangerous to leave my children alone," she said recently from her modest home. "The school cannot protect them. We can't trust anyone to protect them. I breathe again once I get them back inside the house. Maybe we're not safe in the house, either, but where else is there?"

"We're afraid to leave the house once we're inside, in any case," he said. "Baghdad has gone from worst-case scenario last year to worse." [emphasis added throughout]

Given these extraordinary hardships, I can't help but marvel at the resiliency of the Iraqi people, and the levels of restraint heretofore shown by the majority Shiites who have, for the most part, resisted the temptation for large scale retributions. I fear that might be changing in the near future, as the relentless drumbeat of death erodes even the most steely resolve, making inevitable some form of larger civil war. I hope that I am wrong and that the Iraqis can somehow maintain an even keel even amongst this tumult. Nevertheless, the realities of post-invasion Iraq should be enough to give a sobering pause to even the most strident liberal interventionists and neoconservative big thinkers. These are real lives, not abstractions, and theoretical models are no basis for elective wars.

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