Shadowland: Body Counts

The morning news from Iraq today brought fresh chronicles of slaughter. Yes, even more than usual. American troops are waging an offensive they call Operation Matador in a remote stretch of desert near the Syrian border, while suicide bombs are going off in Iraq's towns and cities, including the capital. Who's winning? Who's losing? Who knows?

The military and political future of Iraq remains so uncertain that the Pentagon in recent months has gone back to the Vietnam-era practice of citing bodycounts as measures of success. We're told, for instance, that "as many as 100" insurgent fighters have been killed by the Matador forces. But of course that's just a guesstimate, while the toll on the Americans and their Iraqi allies is all too concrete. Today alone, the insurgents managed to kill more than 60 would-be Iraqi military recruits and civilian bystanders in urban Iraq. The Americans are drawing lines in the sand, it would seem, while Tikrit and Baghdad are bathed in blood. Meanwhile, the total number of American dead in this war is now more than 1,600. And the Iraqi civilians killed by U.S. troops? Well, we'll get back to that.

If there's good news, it's that while the Pentagon may obscure this grim reality in public presentations, it doesn't seem to be kidding itself, as it did in Vietnam. An accidentally declassified Pentagon report about a killing on the road to Baghdad airport at the beginning of March shows quite clearly how much worse the overall situation is than the Bush administration would like us, or even its allies in the Coalition forces, to believe.

"The U.S. considers all of Iraq a combat zone," says the report, which was wrapped up at the end of April, three months after the elections that were supposed to have turned the tide in this conflict. "From July 2004 to late March 2005," says the document, "there were 15,527 attacks against Coalition Forces throughout Iraq." Then comes one of several paragraphs marked S//NF (secret, not for distribution to foreign nationals): "From 1 November 2004 to 12 March 2005 there were 3306 attacks in the Baghdad area. Of these, 2400 were directed against Coalition Forces." In a span of four and a half months, which included the election turning point, that's not only a hell of a lot of hits in the capital city, it's just pure hell.

The report in question was prepared at the direction of the Multi-National Corps commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. John R. Vines, to answer questions about a now-infamous incident on the night of March 4. Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena had just been released by the hostage-takers who'd held her for a month, and she was on her way to Baghdad airport with Nicola Calipari, a major general in the Italian intelligence service who had negotiated her freedom. At a U.S. roadblock on an access ramp leading to the airport highway, U.S. troops opened fire, wounding Sgrena and killing Calipari.

The sequence of events outlined in the report, which recommends "no disciplinary action be taken against any soldier involved in the incident," was generally the way you might have figured at the time. "On that road at 8:30 at night," as I wrote then, "when you have an unexpected car and an unexpected checkpoint, it's a good bet somebody's going to die." The situation was made all the worse because the guys at the roadblock had only expected to be there about 15 or 20 minutes. Their mission was to close the road so John D. Negroponte, then the U.S. ambassador and now the nation's intelligence supremo, could be driven more safely to an appointment near the airport. But the weather was so miserable, his staff couldn't decide whether he'd be able to return to Baghdad in a chopper or go back in a car. While they dithered, tension mounted out on the rain-swept highway. The troops had been in position an hour when the Italians' car came sweeping around the on-ramp.

Sgrena, and many others who are automatically suspicious of U.S. actions and motivations, continues to believe there may have been some sort of conspiracy or cover-up involved. Meanwhile, the Italian government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi certainly doesn't want to have to admit that the shroud of secrecy surrounding the hostage negotiations--perhaps because a ransom was involved--put Calipari and Sgrena at such risk. According to the American report, an Army captain assigned as an aide-de-camp to the ranking Italian general in Iraq was the only American official who had any idea what Calipari was up to as he went off to meet with the kidnappers and free Sgrena. "It is best if no one knows," the Italian general told the American captain. Certainly no one at the roadblock knew, the report says, and the rest is history.

After long delays, the American report was posted on the Web at the end of April with classified sections blacked out. But those sections could be restored, as it happened, with just a couple of mouse clicks that revealed all the S//NF material, including the names of every soldier at the checkpoint and the second Italian secret agent driving the car.

Under the heading "Atmospherics," the author lays out the reasons the soldiers at the checkpoint were getting so jumpy--even though they acted according to the rules of engagement and within regulations. Everyone knows the eight-mile road from downtown Baghdad to the airport is dangerous. Here's how dangerous: "(S//NF) Between 1 November 2004 and 12 March 2005, there were 135 attacks or hostile incidents that occurred along Route Irish," as the military calls the airport highway. That's just about one attack per day during those months, by the Pentagon's calculations, or, looking at it another way, almost 17 attacks per mile. There were nine "complex attacks" combining, say, the explosion of a roadside bomb along with small-arms fire and mortars; there were 19 explosive devices found, three hand grenades, seven "indirect fire attacks" 19 roadside explosions, 14 rocket-propelled grenades, 15 car bombs and four other kinds of attacks. Investigators into the March 4 shooting had a grenade thrown at them when they tried to visit the scene. (Sgrena has suggested in some interviews that she was on a special road for VIPs when she was shot. In fact there's only one highway to the airport, and this, sad to say, is it.)

Suicide bombs are the biggest threat. "The enemy is very skillful at inconspicuously packing large amounts of explosives into a vehicle," says the report. "When moving, these [car bombs] are practically impossible to identify until it is too late." The number of suicide attacks has been increasing steadily, including some using "multiple vehicles." "Suicide [car bombs] are typically used against convoys, Coalition Force patrols, or Coalition checkpoints where they can achieve maximum damage," says the report. "Such vehicles will rapidly approach the vehicle from the rear and attempt to get in between convoy vehicles before detonating." The week of the March 4 shooting, 17 suicide bombs had gone off in Iraq, averaging 23 people killed per detonation. That average will be higher now.

As I write this, I can't help but think about my friend Marla Ruzicka, who was killed on the airport road on April 16 while trying to pass a convoy, reportedly at just the moment when a suicide bomber struck. Because Marla's passion was for helping people who'd suffered from the war, and because she had to deal with the military frequently to do that, she was sure that the same officials who kept such detailed numbers about everything else in the Iraq conflict had to be keeping a record somewhere of the civilians they killed and wounded. They always maintained they did not. But just before she died, Marla wrote a report with a partial number she said she'd received from U.S. military sources: 29 civilians killed by small-arms fire in Baghdad alone during firefights between U.S. troops and insurgents over the course of five weeks before April 5. Estimates of the total number of Iraqi civilian casualties in this war, calculated by reporters and human-rights groups, have ranged from about 10,000 to the much-less-plausible 100,000. Does the Pentagon know? If so, it should tell.

In the meantime, without a doubt, the body counts will continue.