WASHINGTON -- Military experts say there are practical reasons why it's difficult to pinpoint the number of Iraqi casualties in the Persian Gulf war.
But to anti-war activists the difficulties aren't so much practical as political: They say the U.S. government doesn't want to determine or divulge a number.
Whatever the reason, Iraqi casualty figures are likely to be debated for a long time.
The Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States said yesterday an estimated 85,000 to 100,000 Iraqi soldiers died or were wounded in the war that began Jan. 17. American officials throughout the war have refused to estimate enemy casualties.
Allied commander Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf has said only that "there were a very, very large number of dead."
By contrast, American dead total 79; 219 were wounded in action, 45 are missing.
"The U.S. is going to be shy about counting casualties, remembering the body count estimates of the Vietnam War," says Trevor N. Dupuy, a retired U.S. Army colonel and military historian, referring to the controversial counts of enemy dead that become the Pentagon's standard of success in that war.
Before the war began, he used conventional analytical methods to estimate the Iraqis would suffer 118,000 casualties, with a fatality rate of 25 percent to 35 percent. But he doesn't stand behind that estimate now because the war turned out to be without "historical precedent," with the Iraqis hardly fighting.
"I think we'll probably know," Dupuy predicts. "We won't know precisely. But there must be Iraqi records and at some point we may find out."
Lawrence Korb, former assistant secretary of defense for manpower and reserve affairs, expects varying estimates of casualties and official caution about stating them.
"One of the reasons for the difference in estimates is we said how many guys are over there," he says, referring to prewar allied estimates of Iraqi troop strength. "And then of course we go over and capture this many and kill this many and everybody goes, where's the rest? Two answers: Either they all deserted or we overestimated in the beginning. And that's a reason we're being so careful about these numbers."
"You won't know for a year," he adds. "Guys might be buried, the fuel-air explosion things may have collapsed structures on them. Some people maybe did desert."
As Korb notes, questionable casualty counts are nothing new: The invasion of Panama in 1989 provoked a controversy over calculations of civilian deaths.
Baltimore anti-war activist Philip Berrigan also recalls Panama.
"I think it's a replay not only of Vietnam but also Panama, where it was enormously difficult to get any casualty count," he says. "It became possible only through observers who were opposed to U.S. intervention in Panama. It was even more difficult in Vietnam."
"And I think there is not only a conqueror factor at work but also there is very definitely a racist factor," he says. ". . . The Arabs, we consider them to be an inferior people and they are hated by us."
"We certainly should" acknowledge as a nation the Iraqi losses, Berrigan says. "But I think that's going to be clouded, even subverted by what we did there."