Five Facts:Civilian Deaths in Iraq
The Iraq Body Count project tracks civilian deaths since 2003. How successful has American policy been at minimizing them?
The Iraq War and its chaotic aftermath have dominated the foreign policy of both the Bush and Obama administrations. The Trump administration inherited ongoing military operations in Iraq. Overall, the conflict has cost the lives of over 4,500 American military members.
The human toll for Iraqis is much greater: since March 2013, there have been nearly 180,000 documented violent civilian deaths.
This figure, and the data in this article, was compiled by Iraq Body Count (IBC), a nongovernmental organization based in London.
Civilian deaths are a tragic part of every war. But the number of civilian deaths in Iraq has varied significantly, from year to year and month to month, as the methods and circumstances of the war have changed. This story seeks to give context to the data.
—Daniel Kenis, Senior Editor at LiveStories
1. The "shock and awe" campaign killed 7,186 Iraqi civilians in two months.
No other period of America's years-long counterinsurgency or its air war against the Islamic State has approached this level of lethality.
The Iraq War began on March 19, 2003, when President Bush announced Operation Iraqi Freedom. The U.S. military and its coalition of allies launched a "shock and awe" campaign aimed at destroying the Iraqi government's will to fight.
The campaign lasted until April and succeeded in decimating Saddam Hussein's military and government. But it was enormously destructive to civilians. Out of all civilian deaths caused directly by the U.S.-led coalition between 2003 and 2016, 43% occurred during March and April of 2003.
Hover over bar segments to see monthly figures.
2. A wave of sectarian violence made 2006 the deadliest year for Iraqi civilians overall.
At the time, some analysts argued that Iraq was in a state of civil war. By 2006, the American-led occupation had been facing an ongoing violent insurgency for years. But the vast majority of civilian deaths in 2006 and 2007 were caused by unknown actors—not organized insurgent groups or the American military.
On February 22, 2006, terrorists bombed the al-Askari mosque in Samarra, one of the holiest sites in the world for Shi'ite Muslims. Civilian deaths were already common before this event, but they increased dramatically during the rest of 2006 and 2007. Grim reports of summary executions based on religious sect became commonplace. Shi'ites largely drove Sunnis out of Baghdad in what has been called ethnic cleansing.
3. For 61% of civilians deaths, the parties responsible remain unknown.
Of known parties, the Islamic State has killed the most civilians.
The legacy of violence from 2006-2007 continues to haunt Iraq today. The conflict between the Shi'ite-led Iraqi government and the Islamic State—a Sunni extremist group that has targeted Shi'ites for genocide—is in some ways a continuation of the sectarian violence of 2006 and 2007.
The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (also known as ISIL, ISIS, or its Arabic acronym DAESH) emerged as an offshoot of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, which formed the core of the insurgency. The line between the two groups is indistinct, as elements of al-Qaeda had rebranded themselves as the Islamic State of Iraq as early as 2006.
Because of this ambiguity, the data presented here likely understates the civilian deaths associated with ISIL significantly. Deaths attributed to anti-government/coalition forces may have in fact been killed by ISIL members, or by people who later identified as ISIL members.
4. June 2014, the height of the Islamic State's conquest, marked the deadliest single month for Iraqi civilians.
The initial months of the U.S.-led invasion were a close second and third.
Although the Islamic State originated in Iraq's local insurgency, the group's conquest of northern Iraq in 2014 more closely resembled an invasion.
By 2008, many analysts believed Iraq's insurgency, including al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, had been defanged. But chaos in neighboring Syria—where a government crackdown on Arab Spring protests had spiraled into civil war—gave the Islamic State an opportunity to regroup.
By 2014, the Islamic State had carved out significant territory in eastern Syria, largely from rival rebel groups, and armed themselves with looted weapons. In June, thousands of ISIL fighters streamed into northern Iraq from Syria and quickly captured Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city.
5. Rules of engagement matter.
Coalition forces fought three battles to retake the city of Fallujah from insurgents—twice in 2004, and once in 2016. They killed far fewer civilians the third time.
Just 43 miles (69 kilometers) west of Baghdad, Fallujah has been a center of insurgency since the war began. Al-Qaeda and its allies captured the city twice in 2004; in 2014, the Islamic State and its allies captured the city a third time.
The first two battles for Fallujah, in 2004, both involved thousands of Coalition ground forces. Battlefield commanders had broad leeway to use force as they saw fit.
The third battle of Fallujah, in 2016, commenced after a lengthy siege and a slow campaign of targeted airstrikes. With the exception of American special forces assisting Iraqis and calling in airstrikes, it involved no Coalition ground troops. Under President Obama's rules of engagement, airstrikes required interagency approval intended to safeguard civilians.
Comparing civilian casualties in the three battles for Fallujah is inexact—the monthly figures do not correspond only to the area around Fallujah, and they stretch beyond the exact dates of the three battles. But the difference is illustrative: Coalition and Iraqi forces fought the same adversary in the same city and achieved the same outcome in 2016—while causing dozens of civilian casualties instead of hundreds.
Full Timeline: Explore the Data
March 19, 2003: President Bush announces Operation Iraqi Freedom.
March 31, 2004: Insurgents kill and mutilate four Blackwater private military contractors in Fallujah. The U.S. military responds with overwhelming force in the First Battle of Fallujah.
Nov. 7, 2004: The U.S. military begins a second battle to quell the insurgency in Fallujah.
Feb. 22, 2006: Terrorists bomb the al-Askari mosque in Samarra, one of the holiest sites for Shi'ite Muslims.
Jan. 10, 2007: President Bush sends 20,000 more troops to Iraq, known as "the Surge."
November 2008: The Bush administration and Iraqi government sign a Status of Forces agreement, promising withdrawal of all American troops by 2011.
March 2011: Arab Spring protests in neighboring Syria, and the Syrian government's crackdown, flare into civil war. The Islamic State begins reconstituting itself in eastern Syria.
Dec. 2011: The last U.S. military forces leave Iraq.
Jan. 3, 2014: The Islamic State and other rebels capture Fallujah.
June 10, 2014: Sweeping across northern Iraq, the Islamic State captures Mosul, Iraq's second most populous city.
Aug. 7, 2014: The U.S. military begins airstrikes against the Islamic State.
June 28, 2016: Iraqi and U.S. forces retake Fallujah.
Oct. 16, 2016: Iraqi and U.S. forces commence battle to retake Mosul from ISIL.
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Notes on the Data
The IBC's data only includes documented—not estimated—noncombatant deaths by violent means, based on media reports, NGO data, and figures released from Iraqi hospitals and morgues. Because not all civilian deaths have been adequately documented, the data here is best understood as a minimum.
"Other Anti-Government or Anti-Coalition Forces" may include deaths caused by members of the Islamic State, which began as part of the insurgency. The IBC's original dataset includes ISIL-caused deaths as part of this broader category.
Kurdish peshmerga forces fighting in alliance with the Iraqi army are here considered part of the Iraqi State Forces.
The data does not distinguish between intentional and unintentional killings. Widespread reports of the Islamic State executing civilians, for example, are not counted separately from civilians killed unintentionally as collateral damage from the group's attacks.
For more information on the Iraq Body Count project, its methodology, and information about the civilian victims of the ongoing conflict, please visit their website.
Cover: Black Hawk helicopters fly over southern Iraq in April 2003 (photo from U.S. Air Force).