UK's Blair challenged to tally Iraq war dead
British diplomats and peers joined scientists and churchmen on Wednesday to urge Prime Minister Tony Blair to publish a death toll in the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
In an unusual open letter to the premier made available to Reuters, the 44 signatories said Blair had rejected other death counts from the war -- figures span 14,000 to 100,000 -- without releasing one of his own.
Any totaling of the Iraqi war dead could embarrass Blair ahead of a general election expected in months in a country that opposed the U.S.-led war.
The group urged Blair to commission an urgent probe into the number of dead and injured and keep counting so long as British soldiers remain in Iraq alongside their American allies.
"Your government is obliged under international humanitarian law to protect the civilian population during military operations in Iraq, and you have consistently promised to do so," they wrote in the letter to be published on Wednesday.
"However, without counting the dead and injured, no one can know whether Britain and its coalition partners are meeting these obligations."
The inquiry, they added, should be independent of government, conducted according to accepted scientific methods and subjected to peer review.
Signatories included Air Marshal Sir Timothy Garden, who spent 32 years in the military; Sir Stephen Egerton, a former British ambassador to Iraq; human rights campaigner Bianca Jagger and the Lord Bishop of Coventry, Colin Bennetts.
Britain and the United States have suffered around 1,070 losses in the war so far. The Iraq-wide casualty count is not known, and a high tally could wreak political damage in Britain, where Blair is expected to win a 2005 election but with a reduced majority.
HOW MANY DEAD?
The writers, also including philosophers and lawyers, said their letter reflects "an influential and growing body of opinion that the government's failure to provide estimates of Iraqi casualties is unacceptable."
Former Foreign Office legal adviser Elizabeth Wilmshurst signed up, along with Iqbal Sacranie, secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, writer Gillian Slovo and experts in public health.
The toll of the 20-month U.S.-led war is highly contentious.
In a report released in October by the Lancet medical journal, days before the U.S. election that returned President Bush to power, a group of American scientists put civilian deaths at 100,000.
But the Iraq Body Count (IBC) -- an Anglo-American research group tracking civilian deaths via numerous sources -- has come up with a much lower toll of about 14,000-16,000.
The IBC has now joined forces with Medact, a charity that says the war has crippled Iraq's medical system, to launch a new campaign challenging the government to publish casualties.
"No figures in a war zone are going to be perfect -- but that's no excuse for not trying," said John Sloboda, IBC co-founder.
Medact director Mike Rowson said: "Without information, everyone is working in the dark. The overstretched Iraqi health system should not be left to do this job alone. Britain and its coalition partners have a responsibility."