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Sunday, May 02, 2004

Is the world really better off without Saddam?
(Reader Rick wanted an update on the comparison between the kill rate of Iraqis under Saddam with that under the coalition. This is my attempt at an answer. Obviously I don't have either complete information or the time to fully investigate the subject, but I'll try to summarize what I understand. A few months ago, Human Rights Watch wrote a report which investigated whether the war in Iraq was justifiable as a humanitarian intervention. Their conclusion was that it wasn't. I haven't read much of that report; for Rick and others looking for more than my conjectures below, I suggest turning to that report next.)

Is the world really better off without Saddam?

I would suggest that it clearly isn't. The threat of regional or even global war arising out of the illegal invasion of Iraq is growing. The threat of massive terrorist attacks is growing. International law is in a shambles, and America is detested throughout the world.

Is Iraq better off without Saddam? That's a closer call, but it's not looking good right now. In addition to the ever-present possibility of being denounced by a neighbor or colleague and hauled off to be tortured or raped at the Abu Ghraib prison, something which hasn't changed, there's a greatly increased chance of being killed by stray bullets, RPGs, or 500-pound bombs. But how about looking strictly at deaths per day--are Iraqis being killed at a lower rate now than they were before the war? A very difficult question, since we have very poor information on both periods. Saddam apparently didn't count his victims as he dumped them into mass graves, and neither does Bush.

As for what went on before the war, here's an excerpt from a very anti-Saddam article in the NY Times last year:

DOING the arithmetic is an imprecise venture. The largest number of deaths attributable to Mr. Hussein's regime resulted from the war between Iraq and Iran between 1980 and 1988, which was launched by Mr. Hussein. Iraq says its own toll was 500,000, and Iran's reckoning ranges upward of 300,000. Then there are the casualties in the wake of Iraq's 1990 occupation of Kuwait. Iraq's official toll from American bombing in that war is 100,000 — surely a gross exaggeration — but nobody contests that thousands of Iraqi soldiers and civilians were killed in the American campaign to oust Mr. Hussein's forces from Kuwait. In addition, 1,000 Kuwaitis died during the fighting and occupation in their country.

Casualties from Iraq's gulag are harder to estimate. Accounts collected by Western human rights groups from Iraqi émigrés and defectors have suggested that the number of those who have "disappeared" into the hands of the secret police, never to be heard from again, could be 200,000. As long as Mr. Hussein remains in power, figures like these will be uncheckable, but the huge toll is palpable nonetheless.

As with other documents that I've seen claiming that Saddam was responsible for over one million deaths, this one has to include the death tolls on all sides of both the Iran-Iraq war and the 1991 Gulf war. Certainly Saddam deserves blame for much of this, but so do Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, various Iranian leaders, and many others. The U.S. encouraged Saddam to attack Iran, and received backing from the Reagan administration as he used his chemical weapons and otherwise prosecuted the war. He probably wasn't aware that the Reaganistas were also supplying weapons to Iran. Henry Kissinger openly stated that he hoped the Iranians and Iraqis would just keep killing each other, and though Kissinger wasn't a part of the Reagan administration, that seems to have been pretty much their official policy. This doesn't absolve Saddam, but giving him sole blame for the deaths of 300,000 Iranians and 500,000 Iraqis in this war obviously isn't correct.

Saddam's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 was largely bloodless. The tens or hundreds of thousands of deaths from the 1991 Gulf war seem to me to fall much
more on George H.W. Bush's shoulders than on Saddam's.

Whatever the proper assignment of blame for the deaths from these wars, we shouldn't forget that Saddam hadn't started a war in over twelve years when our invasion started last year. The war deaths were not an ongoing thing. So I think the key number to look at from the Times article is the 200,000 of "disappeared" Iraqis over the 20+ years of Saddam's rule, which the Times seems to suggest would be the high-end estimate. So up to 10,000 per year. A horrible number to be sure, but it's the lower accepted limit on the number of Iraqi civilian casualties in the year-plus of George W. Bush's Iraq war. And the estimates you almost never see are of the number of Iraqi soldiers killed in the "major combat operations" of March and April 2003, nor of the "insurgents" killed since then. One would have to believe that these numbers each also exceed 10,000.

So I would suggest that Iraqis are still subject to random arrests leading to indefinite detention, torture, and possibly death; that they have new fears for ongoing military action in their streets; and that they may be being killed at up to three times the rate that they were by Saddam in the 1990's.