Tuesday, October 09, 2007
The Sycophant Savior General Betrayus Petraeus Lied to Congress.
The Public Editor New York Times
The Reality in Iraq? Depends on Who’s Counting
By CLARK HOYT
A TOTAL of 1,654 Iraqi civilians were killed last month, according to a Times report that quoted an Interior Ministry official. Or the total was 1,280, according to the British group Iraq Body Count. Or 884 (Reuters), or 827 (The Washington Post, quoting the Health Ministry).
Welcome to the confusing world of statistics from Iraq, where news organizations disagree with one another, the news pages of The Times have disagreed with its Op-Ed page, and the Pentagon has appeared to disagree with its own top commander in Baghdad.
Even the most careful reader is left to wonder what the truth is — whether violence in Iraq is really decreasing and whether President Bush's surge of added American troops is working.
A debate over the numbers — and what they mean — has intensified since Gen. David H. Petraeus, the United States commander in Iraq, testified to Congress on Sept. 10 that civilian deaths had fallen by more than 45 percent since December. Civilian deaths are an especially important barometer, because when Bush announced the surge in January, he said it would reduce violence against ordinary Iraqis so that the country could begin to work out its political problems in relative security.
But even before Petraeus went to Capitol Hill, his statistics were challenged. The Post reported that experts inside and outside the government questioned the military's numbers and how they were compiled. The article famously quoted an anonymous "senior intelligence official" as saying that the military counted people shot in the back of the head as victims of sectarian violence, but not those shot in the front of the head. The Los Angeles Times said that deaths from car bombings were not counted as sectarian violence.
Paul Krugman, a Times Op-Ed columnist, cited both reports in a column published the Friday before the general testified. Mocking the Pentagon's "double super secret formula" for counting sectarian killings, Krugman said, "No independent assessment has concluded that violence in Iraq is down."
The very next morning, on the front page, Michael Gordon, chief military correspondent of The Times, reported that two independent groups, Iraq Body Count and the Iraq Index compiled by the Brookings Institution, agreed that there has been a downward trend in civilian deaths since late last year.
Gordon also reported that the military counts only certain car bombings as sectarian violence, but that all victims of car bombings are included in overall civilian casualty statistics.
On the morning that Petraeus testified, The Times published that MoveOn.org ad with the "General Betray Us" headline. Without distinguishing between an opinion piece and a news report, the ad said that, "according to The New York Times, the Pentagon has adopted a bizarre formula for keeping tabs on violence. For example, car bombs don't count. The Washington Post reported that assassinations only count if you're shot in the back of the head — not the front."
After a week of looking into these conflicting reports, interviewing government officials, policy experts and keepers of independent databases on Iraq, here is what I have found:
¶Back-of-the-head, front-of-the-head is not a distinction the military uses to count victims of sectarian violence. The military's manual for measuring sectarian violence, declassified the day after Krugman's column ran, says that civilians "shot anywhere in the head" are counted. On Sept. 25, in a detailed account of how the military counts victims of sectarian violence, The Post quoted an Army chief warrant officer as saying that "a single shot to the head" is a sign of sectarian violence.
¶Car bombings do count. The unclassified manual, "MNF-I Ethno-Sectarian Violence Methodology," says car bombings at such places as mosques or markets are to be counted. Civilians killed in car bombings not deemed sectarian, like an attack on a U.S. convoy, are still counted in the overall casualty numbers.
¶Petraeus's claim of a 45 percent reduction in civilian deaths since the start of the surge should be treated with skepticism, as should any single number or month-to-month comparison. Every source probably understates the number of deaths because the statistics are gathered amid the chaos of war, bodies are sometimes hidden and then dumped, and Muslims are customarily buried quickly.
But there is plenty of evidence that civilian deaths from war-related violence have gone down since the end of last year — although the cause of the decline is the subject of fierce argument. John Sloboda, a founder of Iraq Body Count and an opponent of the war, says the decrease has been "slight." Michael O'Hanlon, who is in charge of Brookings's Iraq Index and supports the surge, calls the decrease "significant." Civilian deaths are still running higher than at any time from 2004 through the first half of last year.
Petraeus came up with his "over 45 percent" decline by comparing December 2006 and this past August. The December number, in particular, stands out as questionable. For almost all of 2006, the U.S. military count of civilian deaths ran lower than Iraq Body Count's numbers. But the Petraeus number for December, the starting point for measuring the impact of the surge, suddenly leaped 12 percent above the group's, before plunging back well below it.
Col. Steven Boylan, Petraeus's spokesman, said of December's number: "Do we have 100 percent confidence in it? No. But it is the best data we have available." The number may have included some double counting by the Iraqi government, which has since improved its methods, he said. The military uses data from Iraqi sources, he said, because "we are not physically in every location in Iraq."
Stephen Biddle, a scholar at the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations, said Petraeus's December number was "very high" but was likely the result of "statistical noise" — the tendency of Iraq numbers to jump all over the place. Biddle was an adviser to Petraeus last spring but believes the general's testimony was "potentially misleading" because it didn't discuss all the reasons why the numbers might have improved.
He said the best way to analyze statistics from Iraq is to gather all the numbers from all sources and look for broad trends instead of picking isolated points, as Petraeus did. Biddle examined data from nine sources on Iraqi civilian deaths, including the U.S. military, independent organizations like Brookings and Iraq Body Count and four news organizations. Although the specific monthly numbers varied widely, he said they all showed declines since late 2006.
Biddle was challenged by Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a former top Defense Department official in the Reagan administration. Korb said there has been no decrease in violence in Iraq. He noted that August's death toll was higher than July's and pointed to several reports, including a Government Accountability Office study that found no decrease in violence through July. Finally, Korb cited little-reported numbers released by the Pentagon a week after Petraeus testified, which Korb said showed an increase in civilian casualties since the surge began.
He was referring to the Pentagon's quarterly report to Congress, which had a chart combining civilians, U.S. and coalition troops, and Iraqi security force personnel killed and wounded, expressed as a daily average. Petraeus had presented monthly totals for civilians killed. At first glance, the chart seemed to support Korb's assertion.
But Biddle analyzed the civilian part of the chart, expressed it as a monthly total and found a decline since late 2006.
Much of the raw material for this debate over numbers and the causes for any decline in violence is on the Times's Web site. To find it, go to topic.nytimes.com/iraq and nytimes.com/iraqprogressreports.
More telling than the numbers, I believe, was a special report by 18 Times reporters published the day before Petraeus testified. Fanning out across Baghdad to get a ground-level assessment of the surge, the reporters talked with more than 150 residents, in addition to U.S. soldiers on patrol, members of sectarian militias and Iraqi government officials. You'll find their report and an interactive map with video of some of their interviews on the same Topics page.
Whatever the numbers say, it isn't a pretty picture.