The Magazine

A Lifesaving War

The death toll in Iraq would have been vastly higher over the last year if Saddam had remained in power.

Mar 29, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 28 • By GERARD ALEXANDER
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A YEAR AGO, possible civilian casualties loomed large in the debate over whether to invade Iraq. Opponents of the war estimated likely casualties in the hundreds of thousands. One heavily cited United Nations report projected 100,000 to 500,000 Iraqi civilians would die or suffer injury and/or starvation. Of course, those projections were wildly off. Just after Baghdad fell, University of Chicago political scientist Daniel Drezner pointed out that casualties had been "less than one percent of what was projected." But everyone agreed that estimates of civilian casualties deserved to be factored into our decision.

Today's debate would benefit from a second estimate. How many Iraqi civilian lives have been saved by the use of force against Saddam? John Burns, who covered the war for the New York Times, guessed that in the first six weeks of war fewer Iraqis had died than would have "if Saddam Hussein's killing machine had gone about its daily business." Estimating how many lives have been saved by a tyrant's overthrow is as messy and hypothetical as projecting how many will be lost in a coming war, but the exercise is based on something concrete. Saddam's regime murdered people every year, and would have murdered some number of people had it remained in place over the past 12 months. We can't know exactly how many. But we can make an educated guess based on the regime's record--its long-term rate of killing--combined with its behavior in the period leading up to its overthrow.

Figuring out exactly how many people were killed in Saddam's 24 years as president of Iraq isn't easy. Saddam's murders were frequent and numerous, but the victims and their executioners were often the only witnesses. The true extent of his murderousness will be revealed only when Iraq's many mass graves are exhumed, an enormous and painfully slow task that has just begun. For now, though, we have credible estimates to work with. Almost certainly, most of them understate the regime's bloodletting.

In 1979, when Saddam became president, violence in Iraq escalated dramatically. The regime committed both individual murders and mass murder. The former category eliminated individuals suspected of anti-regime (or just anti-Saddam) sentiments or activities. This included Saddam's personal and factional enemies in the party, disloyal (or insufficiently obsequious) military officers, active or suspected dissidents in Iraq's general population, and many others whose only sin was being a friend or relative of such persons. In 1989, Amnesty International reported hundreds of such executions per year, stretching back over a decade. Some years, these murders reached into the thousands. Of course, any numbers derived from these killings do not include many thousands of cases of torture, rape, amputation, branding, and other atrocities committed by Saddam's regime that stopped short of death.

Its rate of killing was far higher when the regime targeted entire communities. Shia Muslims, ethnic Kurds, and smaller ethnic and religious minorities were constantly subject to violence from the regime (as well as many other forms of repression). In his first dozen years in power, Saddam assaulted at least one of these groups with truly massive violence on average every three years. After Iran's Shia revolution, Saddam became concerned that Iraq's own Shias might try to follow suit. In 1980, Iraq attacked Iran, at which point Saddam wanted also to ensure that Iraqi Shias would not assist their Shia brethren. To these ends, the regime murdered thousands--quite possibly 50,000, according to Human Rights Watch--including Shia clerics.

The Iran-Iraq war put large strains on Iraq's economy, military, and regime. Saddam dealt with the resulting problems in characteristic fashion. Just as with Stalin during World War II, large amounts of blood were shed not only on the military front, but also behind it. Shias were not the only targets. In a single episode in the mid-1980s, the regime rounded up and killed around 10,000 Kurds. Even before the war ended, the regime launched a much more ambitious program to wipe out entire Kurdish communities. It was in this military campaign--named Operation Anfal--that the regime used chemical weapons against several Kurdish towns, killing thousands. Human Rights Watch estimated that Anfal killed "more than 100,000" Kurds, and that Kurdish victims of the regime's campaigns between 1983 and 1993 reached "well into six figures."

Kurdish groups estimate Anfal's victims were even higher, up to 180,000. Whatever the exact number, Human Rights Watch concluded that "the Iraqi regime committed the crime of genocide." Anfal's intense phase lasted three months in the spring of 1988. If we estimate its victims at 100,000, the regime was killing Kurds alone at a rate of around 30,000 each month, or a thousand a day.