BOB GARFIELD: One hundred and four American soldiers were killed in Iraq in April, making it the deadliest month this year for the U.S. military there. Almost five times as many members of the Iraqi police and military lost their lives in the same period.
As for Iraqi civilians, well, we don't really know. Two months into the so-called surge of American forces in Baghdad, the Iraqi government has abruptly ended its practice of providing the U.N. with counts of civilian dead.
The U.N.'s periodic human rights reports were the last remaining source for official casualty figures, so one newspaper has started counting on its own – The Los Angeles Times. Through interviews with anonymous government ministry employees, it reported that more than 55 hundred civilians died in the first three months of the year, and said the actual number could be much higher.
L.A. Times Baghdad bureau chief Tina Susman wrote that story. She says the government clampdown will make an already murky picture even murkier. TINA SUSMAN: From the start of this war it's never really been possible to accurately count each day the number of civilian casualties. There's been various methods that people have tried – you know, going from hospital to hospital, going from morgue to morgue. Unfortunately, as the war has progressed, a lot of those methods have become virtually impossible because of the danger, and just becomes increasingly difficult for anybody to get a really accurate figure. BOB GARFIELD: And in fairness to the Iraqi government, do we have any reason to believe that they actually know the real numbers? TINA SUSMAN: No, we really don't. However, if the Iraqi government can't produce at least an estimate, then how are people supposed to come up with any idea whatsoever? And also, you know, what does it say about their own ability to keep records? And also, what does it say about their desire to make the world aware of, you know, the kinds of hardships that the people here are living with? BOB GARFIELD: The Iraqi government hasn't necessarily given a very clear explanation for why it's ceased to supply estimates to the United Nations, but did say that it believes that the U.N. and other organizations have been inaccurate in their own estimates. What do you make of that? TINA SUSMAN: Well, the problem with that argument from the Iraqi government is that the U.N. then came back and said, but its estimates were actually based on information it was getting from official Iraqi sources – health ministries, hospitals, morgues, etcetera.
Later, the U.S. Embassy jumps to the Iraqi government's defense in criticizing the United Nations, and it said that the real reason the Iraqi government didn't want to release figures is because it was waiting until it could find a really good comprehensive way of giving accurate figures.
That seems like a reasonable explanation, but if it's the real explanation, then why didn't the Iraqi government simply say that to the United Nations, and why hasn't it come up with a good comprehensive way of releasing accurate figures? It's had a number of years now to do this.
Unofficially, the U.N. said it was told that the Iraqi government didn't want to give those numbers out because it felt that having high death numbers out in the public domain would just not be helpful to its effort to kind of bring stability to Iraq. The Iraqi government is desperate to make it look like this military surge is working. BOB GARFIELD: Of course, the Iraqi government itself is riven with sectarian factionalism, and I guess literally one part of the bureaucracy doesn't trust the other part to give a fair accounting. They all have their own political agendas and various reasons to inflate or undercount civilian deaths, no? TINA SUSMAN: Well, yes, that is part of the problem, and that's why it makes it so difficult for journalists on the ground here.
At the end of each day, actually, there is a count released of the number of bodies that have been found in the previous 24 hours around Baghdad. Now, those are victims of what's considered pure sectarian execution squads, so to speak, and they're separate from the people who may have died that day in various bombings and mortar attacks and sniper attacks. So you end up just basically day by day adding all of those numbers together. But there are so many other factors.
I mean, when, for instance, a roadside bomb goes off near a military convoy, sometimes there will be shooting that breaks out – random shooting, shooting in self defense. Often there are civilians who are killed in those incidents. Those deaths rarely get reported. The military doesn't count civilian deaths. The only way we hear about them is if family members or witnesses report them and they make it into a story. BOB GARFIELD: I've got to ask you this. I mean, it's been well documented how dangerous it is to report on the ground in the middle of Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq, and now it's extremely difficult and time-consuming to tally these deaths. Have you been reduced, as a war reporter, to becoming, you know, just sort of an unofficial body counter to the exclusion of everything else? TINA SUSMAN: No, no, by no means. I mean, we do features. We do plenty of other kinds of stories, believe me. And we also do regular stories on the soldier deaths. You know, but the civilian body count, it's something we include in everyday story, though, because it's a crucial part of what's happening here.
You know, you simply cannot tell the story of this war without every single day making clear that innocent civilians, who have nothing to do with it, are getting caught in car bombs, in random shootings, in execution-style attacks. And it's scary that a bombing has to have a casualty number in the three digits now before you can assume it's going to get on the front page.
That's one of the reasons that we always try to find a new way of telling the same old story. Because it's not really the same old story. It's a different person. It's different people every single day, and each one of them deserves to be recognized. BOB GARFIELD: All right, Tina. Thank you so much. TINA SUSMAN: Thank you for having me. BOB GARFIELD: Tina Susman is Baghdad bureau chief for The Los Angeles Times. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, military bloggers fear they're being unplugged, and Rupert Murdoch bids for The Wall Street Journal. BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media from NPR.