Death from Above

For the Iraqi people, the surge in U.S. troops has meant more bombs dropping from the sky and a surge in deaths

Brian Cook

On June 22, the Operation Iraqi Freedom website issued a press release that hyped a devastating blow against 17 al-Qaeda terrorists, who were gunned down by coalition attack helicopters at Khalis, Iraq, a small town outside of Baqouba. But when the BBC visited the town days later, the villagers told a different story. The men attacked by coalition forces were not al-Qaeda members, but local village guards, who only minutes earlier had been helping Iraqi police raid a suspect’s house. (It turned out to be a false alarm.) Eleven of the men were killed when U.S. helicopters suddenly appeared, raining missiles and heavy machine gunfire upon them. It was like a battlefront, but with the fire going only in one direction,” one local witness said. There was no return fire.”

These tragic deaths represent more than another sad chapter in the Pentagon’s Tolstoyan-length Book of Lies. At the same time Iraq has undergone a surge” of an extra 28,000 U.S. troops, the country has experienced a surge in the number of U.S. bombs dropped on it. On June 11, the Associated Press’ Charles J. Hanley reported that in the first four and a half months of 2007, the U.S. Air Force dropped 237 bombs and missiles on Iraq, eight more than in all of 2006. (Those totals don’t include cannon rounds or rocket fire, nor any weaponry fired by Marine Corps aircraft.) It’s no surprise the number of Iraqi civilians killed by coalition forces has surged as well. 

According to Iraq Body Count (IBC), a British anti war group that tabulates Iraqi civilian deaths reported by the media, civilian deaths by air strikes rose steadily toward the end of 2006, before increasing by 25 percent this year, to an average of more than 50 a month. Due to its passive methodology, IBC’s numbers – while valuable in capturing trends – are likely conservative. Johns Hopkins University epidemiologists, writing in the Lancet last October, reported that coalition air strikes caused 13 percent of all violent civilian deaths between March 2003 and June 2006. At the time the survey ended, which was before the escalation of air strikes in late 2006, and the even greater escalation in 2007, the estimate stood at more than 78,000 Iraqis killed by coalition aircraft. 

The situation in Afghanistan might be worse. As Hanley noted, the 237 munitions dropped in Iraq pale to the 929 bombs and missiles dropped in Afghanistan in the first four and a half months of this year. That number does not include the bombs dropped on June 18 on a madrassa – claimed by the military to be an al-Qaeda hideout” – that killed seven Afghan children. Nor does it include the bombs dropped four days later on the village of Kunjakak that claimed the lives of at least 25 civilians, including nine women and three babies. 

That last attack, the coup de grace of a 10-day period that saw coalition forces kill 90 civilians, prompted the normally pliant Afghan President Hamid Karzai to hold a press conference in which he castigated NATO and U.S. forces for treating Afghan civilian lives as cheap.” In response, a NATO spokesman promised the coalition would do better.”

The promise held for five days, until coalition forces responded to a Taliban ambush outside the southern town of Hyderabad by bombing several compounds in the village, resulting in 45 civilian deaths. That raised the number of Afghan civilians killed by coalition forces this year, mostly through airstrikes, to more than 300, which the Afghan government, the AP and aid organizations all report is higher than the number of civilians ruthlessly killed by the Taliban. 

If it wasn’t clear before, it is shamefully obvious now that using massive air power to combat guerilla insurgencies isn’t merely ineffective or counterproductive in fighting terrorism. It is terrorism and, like all its forms, it must be opposed.

Brian Cook was an editor at In These Times from 2003 to 2009. He now works on the editorial staff of Playboy magazine.
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