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Posted October 23, 2006

Iraqi death numbers rise should spur troop withdrawal, U.S. Catholic peace leaders say

By Agostino Bono
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) The sharp rise in civilian deaths in Iraq should increase pressure on the United States to remove its troops from the war-torn country, said the leaders of several Catholic peace and justice organizations.

U.S. troops are a magnate for violence, they said, and their removal would be a first step toward getting the warring factions in Iraq to the bargaining table under some form of international supervision.

For Franciscan Father Louis V. Iasiello, however, a Navy chaplain on active duty from 1983 until his military retirement earlier this year as chief of Navy chaplains, the escalation in the number of civilian deaths emphasizes the need for a country going to war to have a well-developed postwar plan for bringing peace and political stability to the country it defeats.

This includes sending in troops specially trained in peacekeeping operations, he said.

Father Iasiello, president of the Washington Theological Union, said he has not decided yet whether U.S. troops should be withdrawn in the foreseeable future.

Father Iasiello and the leaders of several Catholic peace and justice groups were interviewed by Catholic News Service after the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Al Mustansiriya University School of Medicine in Baghdad, Iraq, published a study estimating that 601,000 Iraqi civilians have died through violence since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Iraq's population is 26 million.

The study's methodology has produced controversy as to its validity, with some critics saying that the research concentrated on areas of high warfare. President George W. Bush called the study "not credible."

But its methodology has been defended by some pollsters such as John Zogby, head of Zogby International, who has done surveying in Iraq.

The study said that 31 percent of the violent deaths since the invasion were attributed to the U.S.-led coalition forces, but this ratio dropped to 26 percent in 2006 although the total number of deaths attributed to coalition forces rose in 2006.

The Johns Hopkins study interviewed 47 clusters of 40 households each throughout the country to gather its figures, which it then projected on a national level. The interviews were conducted from May to July 2006. The researchers said their methodology was the same used by others to determine civilian deaths in wars in the Congo, Kosovo and Sudan.

The study was published in the Oct. 12 issue of The Lancet, a British medical magazine.

The rising number of civilian casualties shows that civilians are the targets of this war, said Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, which lobbies Congress on peace and justice issues.

"I don't know how we can square that with our Catholic Gospel values," she said.

Sister Simone, a Sister of Social Service, said Network maintains contact with 14 Iraqi women, several of whom came to the United States earlier this year to talk to lawmakers.

"They don't think this (601,000) is a wrong number," she said.

Four of the women have lost close relatives, she added. "Often they don't know what happens to the loved ones. They just disappear."

A key problem in the civil strife is that different branches of the Iraqi military and police forces are infiltrated by militia members of rival political factions who use the security forces for partisan attacks, she said.

"There is not a strong sense of identity to Iraq. Identity is more toward a sectarian militia or clan," she said.

Marie Dennis, vice president of Pax Christi International, a Vatican-recognized Catholic peace movement, said the rising civilian death toll is morally intolerable.

"When the U.S. started the war, the peace movement and churches said this could lead to a mess and it did," said Dennis, also the director of the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns.

"The presence of U.S. troops is fueling the violence," she said.

But a pullout needs to be accompanied by U.S. political and financial support for a multinational peacekeeping process that could include the United Nations, Arab states and other regional powers, she said.

The U.S. also "needs to foot the bill" for rebuilding Iraq, she said.

Another piece of the puzzle is stimulating international pressure to get the various ethnic and religious groups in Iraq to seriously negotiate the country's future, Dennis said.

"The U.S. leaving won't be a magic wand" to solving Iraq's problems, she said. "There is no quick solution."

Dave Robinson, executive director of Pax Christi USA, said the Johns Hopkins research was "the first credible study of what effect the war is having on civilian life."

The U.S. needs to spend less money on military operations and more on reconstruction and to restore the country's infrastructure, he said.

For Iraqi youths "there is no work, no hope. Few schools are working," said Robinson.

The U.S. should not be imposing its views on what the future Iraqi society should be, he said.

Instead, it should be "empowering Iraqis to build their own country according to their own priorities," said Robinson.

Father Iasiello said that it is critical in the postwar period for the victor to provide for the security of the people in the occupied country, especially the most vulnerable, in addition to the security of its troops.

Planning for the postwar situation needs to be taken seriously before a war is started, he said. "We must know what we will be doing in that phase."

The Iraq War is evolutionary and planning needs to be constantly re-evaluated to meet new realities such as an increase in violence, insurgency and tribalism, he said.

Regarding the current debate about U.S. policy in Iraq, Father Iasiello said, "I'm glad we're taking seriously all options."

The drop in civilian deaths attributed to coalition forces from 31 percent to 26 percent shows "that most of our people who fight are moral people" trying to limit the damage to civilians, he said.

Avoiding civilian deaths is also good strategy, he added.

"Commanders realize that if you want to win a counterinsurgency war, you have to win the hearts and minds of the people. You don't do that when you kill family members," said Father Iasiello.