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Who counts the civilian casualties?

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Not long before the United States launched its invasion of Iraq, President Bush told the American people: "If war is forced upon us, we will fight in a just cause and by just means - sparing, in every way we can, the innocent."

He meant civilians: men, women, and children who had lived for a quarter-century under Saddam Hussein's iron-fisted rule - who were not part of Iraq's military forces, yet could not escape the horrors of war.

How well has Mr. Bush's pledge been kept? How many civilian casualties - "collateral damage," to use the antiseptic phrase - have resulted from the war, and the subsequent occupation in which people are killed and wounded nearly every day?

It's an impossible question to answer with sure accuracy. The nature of war - in particular this kind of war in this kind of place - makes it hard to tally the "innocent" victims. The Pentagon says it "monitors" civilian casualties but doesn't keep such figures. Human rights groups try, but they acknowledge that their figures are estimates at best.

Those estimates, however, signal that losses have been severe. Between 8,789 and 10,638 civilians have died since war began March 19, 2003, according to one group of British and American researchers that surveys media reports and eyewitness accounts.

It's also difficult to assign responsibility or blame. Many thousands of Iraqi civilians died during Hussein's reign, and 692 US-led coalition soldiers have died ending that regime. In war - by definition, the failure to resolve disputes without suffering - how do these losses figure into any kind of cost-benefit calculus?

Yet it's important to gauge the toll on civilians, say experts on the laws governing war and occupation. And current efforts to quantify civilian casualties come at a time when those laws are being tested as never before.

Battlefields may be hellish, yet they are regulated by a code called the Law of Armed Conflict.

This includes the Hague and Geneva Conventions (international protocols spelling out the rules of war, in place since 1907 and 1949, respectively), in addition to various international agreements supplementing them. In sum, its principles are military necessity, distinction, and proportionality, which add up to targeting only military objectives while avoiding noncombatants.

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