WASHINGTON—As coalition forces bear down on the Iraqi capital of 5 million people, Baghdad's innocent bystanders could be killed or maimed, especially if U.S. troops are dragged into treacherous street warfare they have sought to avoid.
The Iraqi regime already has tried to inflame anti-American sentiment in the tense Middle East by televising grim images of wounded women and children and accusing U.S.-led forces of targeting civilians.
The Iraqis say that since the invasion began, about 350 civilians—mostly women, children and elderly—have been killed, though no independent corroboration could be obtained. The United States does not give an account of civilian dead or injured.
But a week into the war, the street lamps remain lit in Baghdad, water is running and commerce continues—a testament to the precision of modern satellite- and laser-guided weapons.
"If they've dropped 5,000 weapons on Iraq so far and two or three of them have gone bad, that's 99.9 percent accuracy, and that is amazing," said Bill Durch, a scholar at the Henry L. Stimson Center, a non-profit group in Washington that promotes peace and security.
The Pentagon, which now relies on precision-guided weapons to avoid killing noncombatants, says it has gone to "extraordinary lengths" to minimize civilian casualties. It accuses Saddam Hussein's regime of lawless savagery, including the use of civilians as human shields and placing its war materiel near schools, mosques and hospitals.
"The United States has an interest in minimizing the perception of civilian casualties; Iraq has an interest in maximizing them," said Tom Malinowksi, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch.
Nowhere were the salvos sharper than in the bombing of a busy market in one of Baghdad's poorest districts that killed 14 civilians Wednesday. It remains unclear whether Iraqis or coalition forces were responsible.
It's nearly impossible to give an accurate and complete accounting of civilian casualties after a conflict ends, human rights experts say. That task would only become murkier if the fighting ends up in the streets of Baghdad as it has in Nasiriyah and Basra to the south.
"Reports coming out of the battle zone are often confused and exaggerated," Malinowski said.
Estimates of civilian casualties vary wildly from a scant few hundred to a staggering half million.
April Marie Hurley, a family physician from Santa Rosa, Calif., who is one of 26 activists with the Iraq Peace Team in Baghdad, captures the horror of the Al Kinda Hospital Emergency in an online diary. She tells of a distraught mother who lost her 8-year-old daughter in a missile attack that injured two other daughters, a 13-year-old high school student suffering without painkillers from an open head wound and a deep shrapnel cut in her leg, a 9-year-old who needs oxygen for a chest laceration and lung contusion.
But the bombing campaign has yet to bring the Saddam regime to the brink of collapse. The U.S. Army and Marines have advanced about 220 miles into Iraq, and now face the prospect of street fighting if Iraqi Republican Guard units fall back to the capital.
"The potential is for a costly street by street, even house by house, fight for Baghdad," said Frank Gaffney, a war supporter who heads the non-profit Center for Security Policy in Washington.
Even more could go wrong.
U.S. officials worry that Saddam would deliberately kill citizens to bring international pressure on the United States and Britain to end the war and leave him in power.
Or, they fear, he might try to take down the country with him, using chemical and biological weapons to kill or sicken thousands.
Already people have streamed into hospitals. Activists are giving heart-wrenching accounts.
The 25 million Iraqis already are highly vulnerable, said Roberta Cohen, an expert in humanitarian and refugee issues at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.
Largely as a result of years of economic sanctions, Iraqis must cope with contaminated water and often-disrupted electricity. Nearly half the population relies on government rations. Thirty percent of children suffer from chronic malnutrition.
Cohen hopes allied forces will continue to avoid bombing power grids, water sanitation systems and sewage plants—strikes that would result in "tremendously high numbers of deaths."
"This is a population that has been living on the edge of a humanitarian crisis for years," said Amanda Williamson, spokeswoman for The International Committee for the Red Cross.
Beth Osborne Daponte, a senior research scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, estimates that 3,500 civilians died in bombings and other "direct war effects" in the first Gulf War in 1991. She estimates that 111,000 more died from contaminated water and other health and environmental hazards.
It wasn't until the summer of 1992 that she had the kind of data she needed to make such calculations. Daponte hopes to map the toll of the current conflict that could bloodier than the first. "Right now, it's just too soon," she said.
"There's nothing to go on. There's no data available that's credible."
Daponte knows better than most how politically charged civilian death statistics can become. A report she prepared on Iraqi civilian casualties from the first Gulf War for the Census Bureau contradicted the first Bush administration and nearly cost her her job as a demographer.
"It should be just the facts.
We should estimate as well as we possibly can, and not let politics affect the numbers," Daponte said. "I try to keep out of the fray."
But avoiding politics is all but impossible.
Defense Department spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said that, in the end, Saddam is responsible for all the war's deaths because it is he who would not disarm.
"Any casualty that occurs, any death that occurs, is a direct result of Saddam Hussein's policies," she said.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.