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Tuesday, June 28, 2011


How many have died in Libya?

Michelle Bachmann, who's running for the Republican nomination for President, has developed a bit of a reputation for having a loose relationship with the truth, some not so serious (it was mass murderer John Wayne Gacy who lived in her hometown, not movie hero John Wayne), and some more serious (claiming the Obama administration has issued one new drilling permit since coming into office, when the actual number is more than 200). But when AP decided to "fact-check" her on these and other statements, one thing was particularly interesting - her claim that a NATO airstrike in Libya had killed between 10,000 and 30,000 people!

Putting aside from the obvious (no single airstrike has killed that many people since Nagasaki as far as I know), let's assume she misspoke and meant "NATO airstrikes" rather than "a NATO airstrike." So why did she make such a claim? Because she's opposed to the intervention (probably just to distinguish herself from Obama and score political points), and wants to make the intervention look as bad as possible. AP's fact-check notes that the basis for her absurd statement was clearly a statement made by "the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Gene Cretz, [who] said in late April that U.S. officials have seen reports that 10,000 to 30,000 people may have died in Moammar Gadhafi's crackdown on protesters and the fighting between rebels and pro-government forces." In other words, total deaths in the civil war.

And, to AP's (minor) credit, it does go on to "fact-check" Ambassador Cretz, when it writes "it is hard to know if that is true." I'll say. Ambassador Cretz carefully couches his statement in the old "People say..." language. He's "seen reports," you see, and quite possibly he has. Of course "reports" by themselves have no credibility, a fact I've been emphasizing with respect to Wikipedia, whose disclosures primarily consist of "reports," some true, some not. Bush & Co. claimed they "had reports" that Saddam Hussein was buying yellowcake in Niger, and that they "had reports" that agents of Al Qaeda had met with Iraqi government officials, and the Obama administration "has reports" that Iran is developing nuclear weapons. Merely because someone writes a report about some rumor they've heard does not make it true!

So what is the truth? How many people have been killed in Libya, and by whom? This site contains a very interesting comparison of the wide variety of claims that have been made, claims which range from the low hundreds to more than 10,000 (by the way, none as high as the 30,000 claimed by Cretz). Those claims themselves are quite revealing. The high estimate of 10,000 was made on February 24, very early in the conflict, by "informed sources on the ICC," with no actual source or indication of where that number came from given. The article claims that of those 10,000, "at least 2,000" were in Benghazi, which begs the question of where the other 8,000 deaths occurred. Surely not in Tripoli (although there were certainly some deaths there), where 8,000 deaths would hardly be undocumented. And even the deaths in Benghazi are questionable. Why? Because according to this article, "the main city of Benghazi and several other Libyan cities have been conquered by the revolutionary forces." So a mere seven days after protests had started, the second largest city was in the hands of the rebels, but 2,000 deaths had happened in those seven days? This can hardly be considered credible.

Wikipedia contains one of the few sources of actual information, a table of reported fatalities (rather than the vague claims of people like the U.S. Ambassador). And what do they tell us? For example, in Benghazi, in the period February 17–20, 332-479 rebels deaths were reported, and 163 deaths of government forces. Quite clearly a battle was going on as early as the very first days of the revolt, and not a one-sided battle either. Through June 26, Wikipedia tallies reports of 2,384-3,084 opposition members/fighters (including some civilian supporters) and 1,425-1,673 Gaddafi loyalists have been killed. Again, evidence of a civil war, and again hardly a one-sided war.

Wikipedia also summarizes reports of 3,452-3,461 reported civilians killed by June 20, 2011. Of those, 856 are the reported deaths from the NATO bombing campaign. Another 1,472 are deaths of refugees fleeing the country whose boats sunk on the way to Italy. The vast majority of those were Black Africans fleeing the racist pogroms being carried out by the "revolutionaries" in Benghazi. All of these numbers must be taken as rough figures only. But taking them at least as roughly accurate, this means that 2,338 out of 3,450 civilian deaths (67%) have come either at the hands of NATO (not literally the hands, of course, NATO doesn't get its actual hands dirty) or as a result of the actions of the rebels.

All in all, there have been up to 8,500 deaths in Libya, including deaths of forces engaged in combat on both sides, as well as civilians killed (or whose deaths were caused) by both sides. Quite a few deaths, obviously. But not at all to be confused with "the number of innocent civilians killed by the Gaddafi regime," which is the impression that the U.S. government and the corporate media would like to leave in order to justify the U.S./NATO intervention.

Why is this important? Michelle Bachmann is just a bonehead (ok, she's more than that, but for this discussion only). But statements like the ones from the U.S. Ambassador to Crete, dutifully repeated in the corporate media and definitely not fact-checked, were no boneheaded mistakes. They were deliberate statements designed to give credibility to the "Gaddafi is committing and/or about to commit genocide and we need to start bombing to prevent it" argument. In actual fact, no such thing was happening or was likely about to happen. There was most certainly a civil war in progress. Some civilians were certainly killed by both sides, some deliberately, some "collateral damage." Nothing which would have remotely justified a U.N. resolution or NATO intervention, if the facts hadn't been distorted from the very start.

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