Gulf war's unsolved mystery persists: How many Iraqi soldiers perished? WAR IN THE GULF

March 27, 1991|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- When Col. Trevor Dupuy was fighting the Japanese in North Burma in the summer of 1944, he learned an important lesson about estimating the casualties of a dug-in enemy. Allied troops were besieging the town of Myitkyina and ** figured they'd killed or wounded at least 3,000 of the defenders. They weren't even close.

"It took until 10 years after the war was over to find out that there had been no more than 800 Japanese in the town at any one time," said Mr. Dupuy, a military historian considered the foremost expert on estimating and predicting battle losses.

It is an important lesson for everyone, including Mr. Dupuy, who is now attempting to solve the gulf war's grisliest mystery -- namely, how many Iraqi soldiers were killed and wounded during the six weeks of bombing and four days of ground fighting. With much key information still scarce, any estimate at this early date is a "wild guess," said Mr. Dupuy, whose 1990 book, "Attrition: Forecasting Battle Casualties and Equipment Losses in Modern War," is the definitive work on the subject.

He and other experts said the question may be unanswerable without Iraqi help.

Even in World War II, enemy casualty estimates often weren't sorted out without the help of German and Japanese military records obtained after the war. And military analyst Harry Summers of Bowie said, "We still don't have any definitive figures on the Korean War. They're still a state secret [in North Korea] after 40 years."

Even with Iraqi help, the task would be complicated by the numbers of soldiers still dying in a nationwide insurrection. As for Iraqi military records that could hold the key to an answer, James F. Dunnigan, a military analyst and historian based in New York, said, "Records were destroyed during the bombing when [the allies] hit the headquarters buildings." Nor were those records that good to begin with, according to one Pentagon official.

But experts say the Pentagon could come up with a reasonable estimate of its own if it was willing to spend enough time. In that case, the issue will be whether the Pentagon sticks by its intention to leave the "body count business" to historians.

The Pentagon's only estimate so far has been unofficial, coming from wire service reports quoting "senior Western military sources," who said about 100,000 Iraqis may have been killed. Mr. Dupuy and others say that figure sounds far too high. Mr. Dupuy estimates, based on his own complicated formulas of firepower and attrition, that nearly 35,000 Iraqis were killed and wounded in the ground fighting, with about a third of those dead. The air campaign, he said, may have added 20,000 dead and 40,000 wounded. Mr. Dunnigan, basing his estimate on Pentagon sources, figures that at least 50,000 Iraqis died.

But the biggest problem with all these numbers is that no one, Pentagon officials included, is yet sure how many troops the Iraqis had in the field when the war began. "From the things I'm hearing, even the Iraqis who were in charge aren't even sure," said Mark Herman, a Pentagon consultant in Northern Virginia.

But there is plenty of information available for the Pentagon to collect without Iraqi help. The first is the number of Iraqi bodies that the allies have buried on the battlefield since the war ended, and Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams said yesterday that this figure should be available in the next few days.

Debriefings of Iraqi POWs could help in estimating how many died during the air bombardment, analysts say. Later, there will also be helpful information that is now being compiled by field historians.

"The information is out there; it's just a matter of whether they want it," Mr. Dunnigan said.

Mr. Herman suggested that there was no practical reason to want the information, aside from historical curiosity. "The bottom line: It's really irrelevant," he said.

Holly Burkhalter disagrees. Ms. Burkhalter, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, is disturbed by reports that some Iraqi corpses have been hastily buried in shallow, mass graves, without anyone checking first for letters or documents that might identify them.

She said that a careful accounting of enemy casualties "is a way of keeping faith with completely innocent people who have lost their loved ones. We would expect no less for ours."

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