DAVID GREENE, Host:
Well, regardless of how people feel about him personally, President Bush's legacy will certainly be dominated by his stewardship of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Last month, we ran a series of stories and interviews about the impact of those wars on members of the U.S. military and their families. Listeners said they also wanted to learn more about how war affects people living in war zones. And so we've turned our focus to the citizens of Afghanistan and Iraq. Last week, we talked to NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Kabul. Today, we turn to Iraqis.
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GREENE: The war in Iraq started nearly six years ago. Since then, countless Iraqi civilians have lost their lives, killed by military action, sectarian attacks and criminal acts. And while civilian deaths have dropped dramatically over the last year, Iraqis still perish from random violence every day. Just last Sunday, 40 died when a woman walked into a crowd of religious pilgrims near a shrine in Baghdad and blew herself up. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro has been in and out of Iraq since before the invasion, and she joins us now from NPR's bureau in Baghdad to talk about the toll on civilians. Lulu, welcome.
LOURDES GARCIA: Thank you.
GREENE: So can you give us a big picture? I mean, how many Iraqi civilians have died? Do we have a sense?
GARCIA: The short answer, David, is no. We don't know. Let me go through the numbers. The gold standard, really, is Iraq Body Count. According to their Web site, which we use, they estimate that there are 98,560 civilians that have been killed since the U.S.-led invasion. They get their data crosschecked from media reports, hospitals, morgues here, and official Iraqi figures. It's probably an extremely low number, but it's the most credible one out there for now. The Brookings Institution gives a figure of about 115,000, and there was one very controversial and very well-known report published in 2006 in The Lancet that estimates almost 800,000 Iraqis have died.
GREENE: Well, I mean, we're dealing with human lives. Why is it so tough to come up with some concrete numbers, or even something close to concrete numbers?
GARCIA: It's a hugely controversial issue. For example, the U.S. military says it doesn't do body counts. But we know they do keep some sort of tally. They just choose not to release those numbers. And the reason is obvious. It makes them look bad. I've also spoken to Iraq's government about this many times. And their health ministry, for example, no longer releases its figures to the United Nations. They used to write a report about civilian deaths. And they give the same reason. They feel it makes them look bad.
GREENE: And I know you've done a lot of work trying to bring this to our listeners. And we wanted to play a clip from a report that you filed. And in this piece, you were taking us to Baghdad Central Morgue, and relatives were looking at pictures of unclaimed bodies.
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GARCIA: The pictures are flashing silently by. I see a charred corpse, a young man shot in the head, a man that's been garroted with barbed wire, a bearded man whose face is contorted in a grimace of pain. These are the victims who ended up in mass graves. There's barely anything to identify them as human.
GREENE: I mean, Lulu, how do Iraqis cope?
GARCIA: Well, it's extremely difficult. I mean, to go to Baghdad Central Morgue is really a chilling experience. You have families showing up there that are looking for their loved ones. And every time they recognize one of their loved ones, it's the enormous pain and suffering. It's a personal war. So many people have suffered. So many people have had their friends, their family killed or wounded. It's the big, sort of untold, almost, story of Iraq.
GREENE: And when you're talking to Iraqis about this pain, I mean, do they try to assign blame? Do they point at the U.S.? Do they look at Islamist extremists or sectarian militias?
GARCIA: It really depends who you're talking to. I was speaking to a family in Fallujah just the other day, and this one particular family had had five of their brothers killed in different ways. Two of them had joined the insurgency and had been killed by the Americans. Another one had been killed by al-Qaeda extremists. Another person was killed in random sectarian violence. It was sort of a story of the conflict in Iraq. But certainly, many Iraqis do feel that this was all brought on, obviously, by the U.S.-led invasion.
GREENE: Looking at one positive - I mean, we mentioned in the intro that civilian deaths did sharply decrease in 2008. Why do you think that was? Did the surge have something to do with it?
GARCIA: The surge was, of course, a pivotal thing that happened in Iraq, when the U.S. troops came into Baghdad and secured the city. But, I mean, there were other reasons as to why those deaths decreased. First of all, there was the Sadrist movement. The Mahdi Army loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr declared a cease-fire. We also saw the tribal leaders allied to al-Qaeda turn against them - the awakening movement, if you will - and started fighting al-Qaeda. And now you see places like Anbar, which was one of the most violent places in the country, as - I was just there the other day, and it is very secure. Baghdad - people are out, people feel safe, they go out to parks. There is this lingering fear, but Baghdad as a city is a much safer city than it was just a year ago.
GREENE: NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro. She joined us from NPR's bureau in Baghdad. Lulu, thank you.
GARCIA: You're welcome.
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