The killing fields and the human cost
The casualty figures underline how one-sided US interventions in Iraq have been. By various estimates, there were at least 4,717 US military personnel killed in those 25 years against a minimum of 520,598 Iraqis, although that could be as high as 548,589.
These figures do not include those killed in fighting between Iraqi government forces and Islamic State (ISIS) jihadists in the last two years or so with death tolls sometimes running at more than 1,000 per month.
The Americans’ overwhelming firepower in 1990-91 meant they got off extremely lightly in terms of casualties — 148 killed in action, another 145 from non-hostile causes such as road accidents during the six-month build-up of forces that preceded it.
Overall coalition losses were 292 killed, 776 wounded. Iraq’s losses were as many as 35,000 killed, of whom 1,000-5,000 were civilians. Some 75,000 people were wounded.
During the four-week war, US President George H.W. Bush had encouraged Iraq’s Shia majority, long suppressed by Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-backed regime, to rise up against the dictator. They did, clearly hoping for US firepower to support them. There are no records, but thousands were killed or died of exposure or starvation.
But the Americans, who chose not to get entangled in a potentially bloody campaign to topple Saddam, sat on their hands and watched while the Shia and the Kurds were relentlessly crushed by Saddam’s helicopter gunships and elite regime forces.
For Iraqi civilians, the aftermath of the 1990-91 fighting was the deadliest time of all. This was the period of international sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council after Saddam invaded Kuwait. They remained in force until May 2003, a month after Saddam was toppled.
The sanctions banned all trade and financial dealings with Iraq except for medicine and in “humanitarian circumstances” foodstuff. Iraqis suffered high rates of malnutrition, a calamitous lack of medicines and diseases caused by the lack of clean water.
This was largely because of severe restrictions on supplies of chlorine. It is used to purify water but, because it is also used to manufacture poison gas, it was included in the sanctions.
With Iraq’s agriculture in decline since the 1970s, the sanctions had a devastating effect on food supplies.
There were many civilian deaths. Richard Garfield, a nursing professor at Columbia University, estimated there were 345,000-530,000 “excess deaths” from 1990 to 2002 due to sanctions.
He said there were “a minimum of 100,000 and a more likely estimate of 227,000 excess deaths among young children from August 1991 through March 1998” from all causes, including sanctions.
In the 2003 invasion and subsequent insurgencies, the US Defense Department said 425 Americans were killed. Another 32,223 were wounded. Allied forces lost 318 dead.
Iraqi losses are harder to determine. The total listed by an independent British/US group, the Iraq Body Count, of 140,059-158,648 civilian deaths up to June 20, 2015, is considered the most reliable estimate.
Researchers from the University of Washington and other centres say that one-third of these deaths were not directly due to the violence but to the collapse of state institutions, such as hospitals, that left millions of Iraqis without food, drinking water or health care.
Researchers estimate that US-led forces were probably responsible for 35% of violent deaths, militias and insurgents for 32%.
All told, they estimated there were 405,000 “excess deaths attributable to the war” up to mid-2011, plus an estimated 55,805 deaths unreported by families who fled the country, making a total of nearly 461,000.
“This country’s forever changed,” lamented Amy Hagopian, a public health researcher at the University of Washington who was the lead author of the Washington group’s report, in 2013.