Introduction – The Surge

In all the endless coverage of the American ”surge” committing 20,000 extra troops to the war in Iraq, there has been barely a word about the likely consequences for the civilian population. A report in the Lancet medical journal last year estimated that, as of July 2006, 655,000 Iraqis had died as a result of the US-UK invasion – one in seven families had lost a household member.

In the Independent earlier this month, Les Roberts, co-author of the Lancet report, suggested that Britain and America may have triggered “an episode more deadly than the Rwandan genocide” in Iraq. (Roberts, ‘Iraq’s death toll is far worse than our leaders admit,’ The Independent, February 14, 2007; /commentators/article2268067.ece)

In an exchange with a Media Lens reader, Roberts explained his reasoning:

“The Fordam University assessment put the [Rwandan] death toll at ~6-700000, that is the only quantitative assessment that I have seen… and I was there so I do not use the comparison lightly.” (Roberts, Media Lens message board, February 18, 2007)

The media’s response to Roberts’s claim? Complete silence. No other national UK press outlet has since mentioned his comparison with Rwanda. And yet, as we have noted elsewhere, when Roberts made similar observations on mass killings in Congo in the 1990s, he was widely quoted by press and politicians.

Is it too much to expect that this vast death toll might give journalists pause for thought when discussing likely outcomes of the current intensified combat in densely populated areas? Apparently so. Over the last three months, we have found a single article containing the words ‘Iraq’, ‘surge’ and ‘civilian casualties’. This was limited to one sentence in the Daily Mail:

“Analysts believe that hand-to-hand combat is inevitable and large numbers of civilian casualties are expected.” (‘U.S. gears up for Battle of Baghdad,’ Daily Mail, February 5, 2007)

Over the last month, some 2,340 articles in the national UK press have mentioned the word ‘Iraq’. Of these, seven have also mentioned the words ‘civilian casualties’. Over the same period the words ‘Iraq’ and ‘Matty Hull’ have appeared in 128 articles. As most people will know, Matty Hull was a British soldier killed in a ‘friendly fire‘ incident.

This is hardly a scientific analysis, but it gives an idea of the relative silence surrounding the issue.

The Price Of An Iraqi Child’s Life – 3.5p

It is an awesome fact that the war has so far forced one out of every eight Iraqis, more than 3.7 million people, to flee their homes, according to the United Nations ( meast/01/08/iraq.refugees/index.html). Of these, 2 million have left the country while another 1.7 million have been internally displaced. Some 40 per cent of the professional middle class has left the country since 2003. It was recently estimated that of the 34,000 doctors present in 2003, 12,000 have now emigrated and 2,000 have been murdered. ( Human_Cost_of_War.pdf.)

Antonio Guterres, former prime minister of Portugal and head of the UNHCR, said earlier this month “we are facing a humanitarian disaster”. (‘UN warns of Iraq refugee disaster,’ February 7, 2007; 1/hi/world/middle_east/6339835.stm) Guterres is attempting to raise an extra $60m in emergency funds – the same sum the Pentagon spends every five hours on the occupation. The money is sorely needed. According to the Iraqi Ministry of Water Resources, just 32 per cent of the Iraqi population has access to clean drinking water, 19 per cent has access to a functional sewage system. (IRIN, ‘Water shortage leads people to drink from rivers,’ February 18, 2007;

Dr Abdul-Rahman Adil Ali of the Baghdad Health Directorate warned of the dire consequences:

“As the sewage system has collapsed, all residents are threatened with gastroenteritis, typhoid fever, cholera, diarrhoea and hepatitis. In some of Baghdad’s poor neighbourhoods, people drink water which is mixed with sewage.” (IRIN, ‘Iraq: Disease alert after sewage system collapses,’ Report.aspx?ReportId=64375)

A February 9 Financial Times editorial commented: “what we should all be scandalised by is how little the two countries most responsible for the Iraq misadventure – the US and the UK – are doing to alleviate this crisis“. (‘Iraq’s refugee crisis is nearing catastrophe,’ The Financial Times; aa8d01c8-b7c3-11db-bfb3-0000779e2340.html)

The US has budgeted a mere $500,000 this year to aid Iraqi refugees, of whom it has accepted 466. According to the British Home Office, 160 Iraqis were accepted by Britain as refugees in 2005. The applications of another 2,685 were rejected. By contrast, Syria has taken more than 1,000,000 Iraqi refugees, Jordan more than 700,000, Egypt 20,000-80,000 and Lebanon more than 40,000. The Financial Times noted of Britain and America: “Iraqis fleeing Saddam Hussein were in the past well received”. But today’s refugees are a political embarrassment and are not welcome.

Silence also surrounds the plight of Iraq’s children who are dying in hospitals for lack of the most elementary equipment. Save the Children estimate that 59 in 1,000 newborn babies are dying in Iraq, one of the highest mortality rates in the world. Up to 260,000 children may have died since the 2003 invasion. (Colin Brown, ‘The battle to save Iraq’s children,’ The Independent, January 19, 2007; /world/middle_east/article2165470.ece)

On January 19, nearly 100 eminent doctors, backed by a group of international lawyers, sent a letter to Tony Blair describing conditions in Iraqi hospitals as a breach of the Geneva conventions requiring Britain and the US, as occupying forces, to protect human life. The signatories include Iraqi doctors, British doctors who have worked in Iraqi hospitals, and leading UK consultants and GPs. The doctors describe desperate shortages causing “hundreds” of children to die in hospitals. Babies are being ventilated using a plastic tube in their noses and dying for lack of an oxygen mask, while other babies are dying because of the lack of a phial of vitamin K or sterile needles, items all costing just 95p. Hospitals are unable to stop fatal infections spreading from baby to baby for want of surgical gloves, which cost 3.5p a pair. The doctors commented in the letter:

“Sick or injured children who could otherwise be treated by simple means are left to die in hundreds because they do not have access to basic medicines or other resources. Children who have lost hands, feet and limbs are left without prostheses. Children with grave psychological distress are left untreated.” ( world/middle_east/article2165471.ece)

They added that the UK, as one of the occupying powers under UN resolution 1483, is obliged to comply with the Geneva and Hague conventions that require the UK and the US to “maintain order and to look after the medical needs of the population”. But, the doctors noted: “This they failed to do and the knock-on effect of this failure is affecting Iraqi children’s hospitals with increasing ferocity.”

A delegation of these doctors asked to meet Hilary Benn, Britain’s Secretary of State for International Development. Stop The War reported the results:

“They [the doctors] have been told that Mr Benn cannot spare the time. He has refused their request for the UK to organise an immediate delivery of basic medical supplies for premature babies to just one of these hospitals, the Diwanyah Maternity Hospital located 80 kilometres south of Baghdad.” (Stop The War, press release, February 3, 2007)

This story was mentioned in the Independent on January 19. A Media Lens database search found one other mention in the same newspaper on January 20. There was then a two-sentence letter on the subject to the editor published in the Independent on January 23 – and that was that. There have been no mentions in any other national British newspapers of this attempt to draw attention to the suffering of Iraqi children who, to reiterate, are currently “left to die in hundreds”. Press coverage of the doctors’ letter totals 2,837 words.

Meanwhile, Tony Blair declaims of the Middle East:

“The poisonous ideology that erupted after 9/11 has its roots there, and is still nurtured and supported there. It has chosen Iraq as the battleground. Defeating it is essential. Essential for Iraq.” (‘Blair: Statement on Iraq and the Middle East,’ February 22, 2007; stories/WO0702/S00329.htm)

Iraqi mass death is a price worth paying, in other words, in the considered opinion of the man who defied global public opposition in bringing disaster to Iraq. The answer to Blair’s words was provided by an Iraqi rescuer, Abdul Jabbar, attempting to save victims from yet one more bomb attack. Jabbar was trying to help pull the wounded from collapsed buildings, the New York Times reported, but he found “mainly hands, skulls and other body parts“:

“I wish they would attack us with a nuclear bomb and kill us all, so we will rest and anybody who wants the oil — which is the core of the problem — can come and get it. We can not live this way anymore. We are dying slowly every day.” (Damien Cave and Richard A. Oppel Jr, ‘Iraqis Fault Pace of U.S. Plan in Attack,’ NY Times, February 5, 2007)

This is what is “essential” for Iraqis – to stay alive.


The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you decide to write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Write to Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger
Email: [email protected]

Write to Observer editor Roger Alton
Email: [email protected]

Ask them why the Guardian and Observer have not so much as mentioned the doctors’ open letter to Tony Blair on the mass death of Iraqi children.