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December 16, 2004

Mass Graves: Are We There Yet?


by Mark Drolette

Question: How many people does it take to fill a mass grave?

No, this is not a joke, because although I don't know the "official" answer, the one thing I do know about mass extermination is that it's typically not a subject that lends itself well to humor.

The question stems not from some ghoulish curiosity but rather from the ongoing slaughter in Iraq, and the reply is also crucial to answering the following (and, really, main) query: Since the Bush administration has reminded us many times that Iraqis no longer need fear being used as filler for Saddam Hussein's mass graves, might the U.S., by virtue of the number of civilians it's killed, be in danger of replicating Hussein's dark deeds?

Sticklers for such things may insist that the combat in Iraq is a "Coalition" operation. Sorry, but in my book, America, Great Britain, and then a handful of other countries hard-pressed to scare a gaggle of geese hardly qualify as a coalition. Need it be pointed out there would be no war-related deaths at all if the U.S. hadn't led the charge?

Certainly, it's no secret Hussein racked up an incredibly ghastly body count. Although genuinely accurate numbers are impossible to know, Human Rights Watch (HRW) pegs its best guess at "290,000 'disappeared' and presumed killed [in Iraq, including] the following: more than 100,000 Kurds killed during the 1987-88 Anfal campaign and lead-up to it; between 50,000 and 70,000 Shi'a arrested in the 1980s and held indefinitely without charge, who remain unaccounted for today; an estimated 8,000 males of the Barzani clan removed from resettlement camps in Iraqi Kurdistan in 1983; 10,000 or more males separated from Feyli Kurdish families deported to Iran in the 1980s; an estimated 50,000 opposition activists, including Communists and other leftists, Kurds and other minorities, and out-of-favor Ba'athists, arrested and 'disappeared' in the 1980s and 1990s; some 30,000 Iraqi Shi'a men rounded up after the abortive March 1991 uprising and not heard from since; hundreds of Shi'a clerics and their students arrested and 'disappeared' after 1991; several thousand marsh Arabs who disappeared after being taken into custody during military operations in the southern marshlands; and those executed in detention – in some years several thousand – in so-called 'prison cleansing' campaigns." (Per George Black, Iraq's Crime of Genocide: the Anfal Campaign against the Kurds [New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press], and Human Rights Watch, Justice for Iraq: A Human Rights Watch Policy Paper, December 2002.)

By any standard, a gruesome legacy. But note the last year of known mass killings: 1991 or thereabouts, years before the U.S. rather incongruently began killing Iraqis to (allegedly) stop Hussein from killing them.

Not to be glib or dismiss Hussein's barbarity in the least, but even with mass murder, timing is everything. The Bushies have always glossed over the fact that Hussein's large-scale butchery had been quiescent for years, a tidy little omission with which the American corporate media have never appeared too concerned.

It's also important to note that halting Hussein's murderous rampages (even had they been ongoing) was never presented by the White House as principal grounds for attacking Iraq. Instead, Americans were repeatedly and grimly warned of Iraqi-generated "mushroom clouds" over Main Street, USA, and how Hussein's devil drones gravely threatened us all.

When this tall tale inevitably came a cropper, the administration trotted out one phony ex post facto excuse after another until finally settling on a couple of "justifications" for the invasion that have been proffered for some time now: instilling democracy in Iraq and stopping Hussein's slaughter.

The book is still open on whether anything resembling real democracy will ever emerge in Iraq, but it is closed on Hussein's barbarism. So, in trying to ascertain the number of bodies needed to constitute a mass grave, let's do some simple math:

According to HRW, "By February 2004, the Combined Forensic Team of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) had collected information on 259 mass graves in Iraq." Dividing HRW's highest estimated number of deaths (290,000) by CPA's total of confirmed mass graves (259) equals approximately 1,120 bodies per site.

No one would be surprised if more victims of Hussein's madness are unearthed later, thus likely driving that rough guesstimate even higher. But the "average" of 1,120 corpses per mass grave allows us to address the primary question:

When it comes to producing mass graves, is America giving Hussein a bloody run for his money?

A study by Baltimore's Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health published in The Lancet in October concludes the number of U.S.-precipitated civilian deaths in Iraq since the war began is approximately 100,000.

If this seems too hard to believe, let's turn to Iraq Body Count (IBC), a Web site that has meticulously been documenting war-related deaths since America fired its first missile into Iraq in March 2003. As of this writing, IBC's total is 14,619 civilian deaths.

Even if we disregard altogether the Johns Hopkins study estimate of an astounding 100,000 dead and instead opt for the much lower number of IBC's 14,000-plus, this is still far more than would be needed to fill our now-established standard of 1,120 bodies per mass grave. (True, those 14,000-plus dead Iraqis are not all buried together, but excluding them from the discussion because of semantics would be a tad gauche, while still leaving them just as dead no matter how or where they've been buried.)

There is no end in sight, of course, to Iraq's carnage. Whether brought about by military action, car bombings, assassinations, depleted uranium shell-generated illnesses, contaminated water, inadequate medical care, or countless other ways in the violent hell that is today's Iraq, civilian deaths are guaranteed to climb significantly. When the suffering will stop is an open question.

But even if by some miracle the bloodshed were to come to a screeching halt immediately, there's certainly no doubting the answer if we ask if America is now filling mass graves of its own.

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Mark Drolette is a political satirist/ commentator who lives in Sacramento, Calif. This essay was published originally in Scoop.

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