NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


November 22, 2006

U.S. compliance with noncombatant immunity (rules of war) in Iraq has been relatively high by historical standards, and it has been improving since the beginning of the war, says Colin H. Kahl in Foreign Affairs. 


  • A likely estimate of civilian deaths attributable to U.S. troops or crossfire in Iraq to this point is about 3,582.
  • The number of civilian deaths during major combat in March and April 2003 was not significantly higher than it was in the 1991 Gulf War, even though U.S. objectives in the more recent conflict were far more ambitious and required extensive operations in densely populated Iraqi cities.
  • During World War II, U.S. and British forces regularly engaged in strategic bombing against German and Japanese cities, killing more than one million noncombatants.
  • In a single day of firebombing over Tokyo in 1945, some 85,000 people, mostly civilians, were killed.

Some argue that improvements in precision-guided munitions account for much of this difference.  But the real cause of the drop is a drastic change in U.S. policy that does not target civilians to diminish enemy moral, says Kahl.  For example:

  • In the lead-up to the Iraq invasion, the Pentagon developed the "joint target list," an inventory of all potential targets for coalition forces, which was vetted by judge advocates and other legal advisers.
  • Certain operations directed against Saddam Hussein's regime were deemed off-limits because they targeted civilians or risked producing disproportionate damage to civilians and civilian infrastructure.
  • Starting in late 2002, the Pentagon also enlisted UN agencies and nongovernmental organizations to help draw up a "no-strike" list including thousands of schools, mosques, sensitive cultural sites, hospitals, water-treatment facilities, power plants, and other elements of civilian infrastructure.

Source: Colin H. Kahl, "How We Fight," Foreign Affairs, November/December 2006.

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