Thursday, November 23, 2006

Thanksgiving Day in Iraq

"Violence is 'spiking' all over Iraq":

Iraqis are dying in record numbers and fleeing by the tens of thousands from an anarchic nation where armed men rule the streets and there's little faith in government institutions, according to a United Nations report released Wednesday.

The 3,709 Iraqis killed in October was the highest monthly toll since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Hundreds of the bodies turned up bound and blindfolded, with signs of torture and execution-style killings.

For ordinary Iraqis, who struggle against a rising tide of sectarianism and an atmosphere of lawlessness, life is increasingly bleak, according to the report, which was prepared by the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq.

A combination of car bombings and mortar attacks in Sadr City killed at least 157 Shiite Iraqis:

Five car bombs and two mortar rounds struck the capital's Shiite Sadr City slum Thursday, killing at least 160 people and wounding 257 police said. The attack by suspected Sunni Arab militants was the deadliest on a sectarian enclave since the war began and Shiites quickly struck back.

Soon after the onslaught, Shiite militants fired 10 mortar rounds at the Sunnis' holiest shrine in Baghdad, the Abu Hanifa mosque in the Azamiya neighborhood, killing one person and wounding 14. A 3-foot hole was blown in the dome and some inside rooms sustained severe damage.

Eight mortar rounds later slammed into the top Sunni organization in Iraq, the Association of Muslim Scholars, but caused no casualties, police said.

Fighting also flared in another part of Baghdad when 30 Sunni insurgents armed with machine guns and mortars attacked the Shiite-controlled Health Ministry. The attackers were repulsed after a three-hour battle, during which Iraqi soldiers and U.S. military helicopters intervened. At least seven ministry guards were wounded, police 1st Lt. Maitham Abdul-Razaq said.

But no matter how bad it gets, there will always be those who cling to absurd rationalizations:

I've written previously on the level of violence in Iraq, comparing it to murder rates in other times and places and to death rates that have been experienced in actual civil wars. See here and here, for example. My impression has been that violence in Iraq has skyrocketed since July, when I found that the murder rate in Iraq was 140 per 100,000 (the usual way in which murder rates are expressed). I was surprised, therefore, to learn this morning that rate of violence has increased only slightly:

The United Nations said Wednesday that 3,709 Iraqi civilians were killed in October, the highest monthly toll since the March 2003 U.S. invasion and another sign of the severity of Iraq's sectarian bloodbath.

That compares to an estimated 3,500 killed in July. If 3,709 people were murdered in October, that translates to a rate of 171 per 100,000. That is a high rate of violent death. But, for purposes of comparison, the murder rate in Washington, D.C. in 1991 was 80 per 100,000. So the rate of violence in Iraq today is just over double the rate in the District during the first Bush administration. I don't recall anyone describing conditions in Washington in the early 90s as a "bloodbath."

I wrote in June that based on the data at that time, the murder rate in Iraq outside of Baghdad is about the same as American cities like Chicago, Philadelphia and Milwaukee. With the current numbers, it looks like that would still be true.

A consensus seems to have developed that Iraq is a disaster because of out-of-control sectarian violence. That consensus is driving proposals to change our policy in Iraq, perhaps in the direction of a pull-out that could lead to truly cataclysmic violence. So I think it makes sense to step back and get a more realistic picture of the level of what is happening in Iraq: violent? Yes. A disaster comparable to a civil war? No.

Total bunk, as Think Progress's Faiz wrote after Republican congressman Steve King claimed back in late May that Iraq was safer than several large American cities.

One of the things Hinderaker does is compare violent death rates in selected American cities with violent death rates in Iraq as a whole. Rep. King did the same thing, and Faiz slapped him down:

... [T]he King report is trying to conflate the data for one urban area in the U.S. with the entire country of Iraq. As OpinionJournal writes, "The comparison with U.S. cities poses a problem of scale. Just as some municipalities here have high concentrations of crime, Baghdad and some other Iraqi cities have high concentrations of military, guerrilla and terrorist activity. A comparison of Baghdad with Los Angeles or a similarly sprawling U.S. city would be more enlightening than a comparison of Iraq as a whole with cities of well under a million people."

Another deception practiced by Hinderaker and others who float these specious comparisons is that they ignore the fact that the violent crime rate in American cities does not include the political violence that exists in Iraq -- and Iraq has non-political violent crime as well. In other words, comparing the percentage of Americans in urban areas who are killed as a result of ordinary crime with the percentage of Iraqis who are killed as a result of political and sectarian violence without including the Iraqis who are also killed in ordinary crimes, plus the Iraqis whose deaths are never reported to the authorities, who don't show up at hospitals or morgues, and who are buried hastily and in unmarked grave sites, is essentially comparing apples and oranges -- as Juan Cole pointed out when Donald Rumsfeld equated the suicide bombing of a bus in Baghdad with murders and fatal car accidents in the United States:

Rumsfeld complained at SAIS a week ago that there are 14,500 murders a year in the United States and 42,000 driving fatalities, and the US press isn't covering that, whereas, he implies, 43 people getting blown up on a bus in Baghdad is front page news.

Rumsfeld is committing a logical fallacy here. He is comparing apples and oranges. Does Rumsfeld think that there is not also a murder rate in Iraq beyond the guerrilla violence? The likelihood from the information that has leaked out from the Baghdad morgue is that Iraq is among the more murderous societies in the world at the moment. (As you would expect, since where there is no law and order, criminal elements act with impunity. Worse, there are regular political assassinations by religiious militias.) These Iraq murders are not usually reported in the press, any more than the murders in the US are. Likewise, one can only imagine the traffic death rate in Iraq. The country has imported more than 100,000 used cars since the fall of the old regime, and there aren't exactly a lot of vigilant traffic police.

So the fact is, Mr. Rumsfeld, that the per capita rates for murder and traffic deaths in Iraq may well be similar to those in the United States. The deaths in the guerrilla war are extra.

Political violence and individual crime are not comparable, either in scale or in the impact each has on the society as a whole:

... Human beings are naturally focused on attempts to take over the leadership of a society. The bus bombing in Baghdad was carried out by Sunni Arab guerrillas whom Rumsfeld marginalized, and it was aimed at Shiites on their way to Nasiriyah in the Shiite south. It was a further attempt to provoke Shiite reprisals and ultimately a Sunni-Shiite civil war, in hopes that the resulting instability would allow the Sunni Arabs to make a coup and come back to power. A criminal slitting someone's throat in a back alley of Baghdad won't cause a civil war. Actions like the bus bombing are potentially consequential.
Human beings are hardwired to be far more interested in attempts to change leadership in society than in individual random crime. Who rules Iraq affects everyone in the world. That the US has a remarkably high annual murder rate is of moment mainly to the victims and to the neighborhoods affected. ...
In logic, Rumsfeld's mistake is known as the "false analogy." He incorrectly likens military violence to individual crime, and then expresses astonishment that the two things are not covered the same way by the press. ...

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