On the Civilian Casualties in Iraq

Article excerpt

Baghdad-based Craig Nelson: Truth won't come out in the spin cycle

Craig Nelson, who is at the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad reporting for Cox Newspapers Inc., now has the war on his doorstep, but he took time out Thursday to answer a few e-mail questions from E&P Associate Editor Joe Strupp, who was working on a story about how U.S. papers have been covering Iraqi casualties.

Do you feel civilian casualties in Baghdad are getting enough coverage by your news organization and others?

I don't know. I have no access to American newspapers or TV. The [Web] is now inaccessible. I don't have access to a high-speed "sat" phone line, and the telephone exchanges have been bombed, cutting off all telephone service abroad. The BBC's World Service, however, gives the issue of civilian casualties extensive and cautiously worded coverage.

Is it difficult to gauge how many civilian casualties there are? Or even see them?

It's usually difficult to determine the number of dead and wounded. By the time Baghdad-based journalists have been escorted to the scene, the bodies of the dead and wounded have frequently been transferred to the hospital or, in the case of the dead, immediately buried according to Islamic custom.

Any other way to get a definitive report?

"Definitive report"? What's "definitive"? Under wartime conditions -- when both sides have a stake in depicting their cause as just and their efforts as righteous, when nongovernmental organizations and journalists have little or no timely access to the front and to bomb sites -- there's no "definitive report."

Under enough outside pressure, the Pentagon will sometimes conduct investigations; there were several instances of this recently in Afghanistan. But the Pentagon rarely gives priority to these investigations while prosecuting a war. They require on-site examinations and scrutinizing overhead and satellite imagery. Furthermore, these reports are often issued weeks or months later, sometimes with heavy excisions and classified appendices, sometimes not.

Similarly, the Iraqi government believes it has the right to use the issue of civilian casualties to its benefit, even if it means shading the truth or falsifying it entirely. "We reserve the right to cheat the enemy. They're invading our country," Vice President Tariq Aziz told an interviewer here. Until Iraqi civilians can be interviewed without duress to determine the exact circumstances of the attacks and determine what, if any, military purposes certain buildings were being put to, there will be no "definitive" reports. …