Future British governments must make a greater effort to assess the number of civilians being killed and injured during their military operations, the Chilcot report says, after the Iraq war inquiry’s series of damning conclusions about the loss of life following the 2003 invasion.
Sir John Chilcot believes that at least 150,000 Iraqis were killed during the invasion and subsequent instability, but that the true figure is probably much higher. “The people of Iraq have suffered greatly,” he says.
He adds that while Tony Blair repeatedly stressed the need to minimize civilian casualties during the planning for war, ministers and senior military figures:
- Failed adequately to assess the likely level of civilian casualties before the invasion began
- Failed to count the numbers of civilians being killed and injured once hostilities were under way
- Spent more time squabbling about which department was responsible for recording civilian casualties than actually counting them.
In a conclusion that may – if accepted – have far-reaching implications for future military planning, Chilcot says: “The inquiry considers that a government has a responsibility to make every reasonable effort to identify and understand the likely and actual effects of its military actions on civilians. That will include not only direct civilian casualties, but also the indirect costs on civilians arising from worsening social, economic and health conditions.”
Chilcot recounts the way in which a few weeks before the invasion Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, then chief of the defense staff, advised Blair that the number of civilian casualties was likely to be in the “low hundreds”.
Blair made a number of public statements in which he suggested that the number of civilians who would die should be set in the context of the numbers who had been killed by Saddam Hussein’s government. A few hours before the invasion began, he told parliament that Saddam “will be responsible for many, many more deaths even in one year than we will be in any conflict”.
Chilcot recognizes the difficulties in compiling accurate statistics for civilian casualties in Iraq. One World Health Organization study, based on a survey of 9,345 households, concluded that there had been 151,000 Iraqi deaths between March 2003 and June 2006. Another survey, by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, which has been the subject of some criticism, concluded that there had been 601,027 violent deaths of Iraqis over the same period.
The Iraq Body Count project says it can conclude with certainty that there had been at least 156,531 deaths by April 2016.
As the death toll mounted, and the British government came under pressure in parliament to provide figures for civilian casualties, Geoff Hoon, then defense secretary, told MPs: “We have no reliable means of ascertaining the numbers of civilians killed by United Kingdom forces since the conflict ended.”
However, one official at the Foreign Office then informed another: “Notwithstanding this answer, records are kept of all significant incidents involving UK forces. A significant incident would include … a soldier wounding or killing a civilian. At present, this information is not collated, although PJHQ [Permanent Joint Headquarters] accept that it could be.”
In November 2003, amid media and NGO reports on civilian casualties, Jack Straw, then foreign secretary, asked Hoon whether it would be possible to gather data on civilian casualties. “We need to find ways of countering the damaging perception that civilians are being killed needlessly, and in large numbers, by coalition forces,” he wrote. Hoon replied the following day, saying he shared Straw’s desire “to be able to refute some of the more wild speculation”.
Subsequently, Chilcot concludes, “The government’s consideration of the issue of Iraqi civilian casualties was driven by its concern to rebut accusations that coalition forces were responsible for the deaths of large numbers of civilians, and to sustain domestic support for operations in Iraq.”
Twelve months later, the foreign office and the ministry of defense were still arguing about which department should shoulder the responsibility for collating the statistics. “More time was devoted to the question of which department should have responsibility for the issue of civilian casualties than it was to efforts to determine the actual number,” Chilcot says.
Ministers also asked legal advisers, who said there was a responsibility prior to any attack to assess likely casualties, but no obligation in law to assess casualties after the event, or to count the total numbers killed or injured in the conflict as a whole.
Chilcot’s report contains a case study of one air attack on houses in a residential area of Basra in April 2003, in which 10 members of one family were killed.
Towards the end of the battle for control of the city, the British military wanted to bomb a house in which they believed Saddam’s cousin, Ali Hassan al-Majid, a military commander, was sheltering. A “rapid collateral damage assessment” concluded that seven other houses would be damaged, with about 39 to 51 casualties, not including the people in the targeted house.
Hoon gave permission to go ahead. US forces dropped seven bombs, of which two missed the target. When Abed Hassan Hamoudi subsequently complained that 10 members of his family had been killed, MoD officials decided that he was not entitled to compensation, as the attack had been legitimate.
Al-Majid escaped, but was subsequently captured, tried and hanged. The Hamoudi family received a number of letters from Adam Ingram, the armed forces minister, which expressed sorrow at the deaths, but said that the attack was entirely lawful.