Thursday, February 01, 2007

All the Facts that Fit the Template

Reuters' latest dispatch from Baghdad trumpets more bad news:

"Blasts hit Baghdad as deaths hit new high"

Citing Interior Ministry sources, the wire service notes that the number of civilian fatalities in Iraq "edged up to another record in January." According to the Interior Ministry, 1,971 civilians were killed by terrorism last month, up slightly from December's total (1930).

But the United Nations, which compiles its own data, showed a decrease in the number of civilian deaths, with 2,914 recorded in January, compared to 3,462 in the previous month. To its credit, Reueters notes that these statistics are controversial, and often inaccurate. Officially, the Iraqi government has quit providing monthly totals for the numbers of civilians dead, and the U.S. military has never provided those statistics. Instead, Reuters gets its information from anonmyous officials within the interior ministry, with no independent verification.

In fact, these statistics are largely useless, since they offer no breakout of the number of civilians killed by terrorists (read: Al Qaida), and those who die in sectarian violence. But Reuters is happy to print the information anyway, since it reinforces public perceptions of a country where violence is rampant, and security remains elusive.

Careful readers may also notice that something else is missing from this story. Typically, end-of-the-month casualty counts from Iraq also include the number of U.S. military fatalities, particularly if it's been a bad month on the ground. So, how many of our military personnel died in Iraq last month? According to the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count website, the number of military fatalities in Iraq during January was 84, compared to 112 in December.

That decrease is notable for several reasons; first, it occurred as U.S. forces began the recently-announced troops surge, with more troops arriving in theater, and an upswing in activities aimed at rooting out the terrorists. More troops in the field, patrolling more actively = a greater risk of casualties. Secondly, a significant portion of the January death toll was the result of a single incident--the crash of a Blackhawk helicopter on 20 January that killed 13 soldiers. Hostile fire is believed responsible for that incident, the deadliest helicopter crash in Iraq in almost a year.

Obviously, we grieve for all our fallen heroes, and look forward to the day when we won't be reporting monthly death statistics in Iraq. And, while the January decrease is encouraging, we shouldn't read too much into those numbers--unless the trend continues for several months. Indeed, the number of combat casualties may actually increase over the short term, as the troop surge continues, and we increase our security presence in some of Iraq's most dangerous neighborhoods. In the interim, it is rather interesting--but hardly a surprise--that Reuters excluded the drop in military fatalities from monthly death toll round-up. When you're trying to fit a particular template, reporters must be careful in choosing the news they elect to report.

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