Despite a recent spate of bombings in Baghdad, Iraqi and U.S. officials continue to stress that the city is safer now than it has been in years. But what does safe mean in a country torn by more than half a decade of violence? A look at available data on killings in Baghdad and other world metropolises reveals some surprises.
To start, totally reliable statistics on Iraqi civilian casualties are nonexistent at present. Estimates of civilian deaths in Iraq since the 2003 invasion have ranged from 100,000 up to more than 500,000. The higher estimates come from statistical surveys that have been the subject of intense dispute because they draw conclusions about the entire population based on samples. The low estimate, however, comes from Iraq Body Count, which has established a database of verifiable civilian deaths in Iraq updated continuously. Most scholars, journalists and statisticians consider Iraq Body Count tallies to be a reliable minimum when estimating civilian casualties. (See pictures of Iraq's revival)
According to Iraq Body Count's figures, about 9,000 Iraqi civilians died violently in 2008, a precipitous drop from 2007 when 24,457 died. Baghdad remained by far the most violent place in Iraq, accounting for 32% of all violent deaths. But the capital was becoming relatively safer when compared to other parts of the country. In 2006 and 2007, for instance, Baghdad had been the scene of just over half of all deaths in Iraq. (See pictures of U.S. troops in Iraq.)
In all, deaths in Baghdad in 2008 numbered roughly 2,880, according to the database's figures. Given that Baghdad is a city of about six million that makes for a murder rate of about 48 per 100,000 people. How does that compare to other cities blighted by high levels of violence?
Let's go to the numbers: Caracas, with about 3.2 million people, is in a bloody league of its own, with an estimated murder rate of 130 per 100,000 residents according to government figures. Cape Town is about the same size as Caracas but nearer to Baghdad's murder rate with 62 violent deaths per 100,000 people. New Orleans, with an estimated post-Katrina population of just over 300,000, is tiny in size compared to its rivals. But the number of murders is huge; figures vary, but even the low estimate puts the city on a par with Cape Town. By way of comparison, Moscow, one of the most violent cities in Europe, has an estimated murder rate of just 9.6 per 100,000 residents. New York City's murder rate is 6.2, Washington D.C.'s about 32.
None of this is to suggest that things could be considered safe or normal in Baghdad, where at least 150 people died in a series of bomb attacks over a 24-hour period just last week. None of the world's most violent cities see carnage like that on a regular basis. And it is safe to assume that virtually no one living in Baghdad feels lucky when considering the situation in Caracas or Cape Town. Many Iraqis still point to the years before the U.S. invasion, when Baghdad had a reputation for some of the safest streets in the Arab world. "In the eyes of the Americans and Europeans, maybe these statistics could be acceptable considering their crime rates," says Ra'ad Mahmoud, a 51-year-old computer technician and lifelong Baghdad resident. "But for us Iraqis, we never witnessed such crime rates in the 1960s, 1970s or 1980s. We used to have an anti-crime squad. It was one of the most efficient in the Arab world. If there was a killing or a robbery, they captured the culprits within days. But now, we don't know why people are killed. Is it robbery? Is it revenge? Is it a political quarrel? Or is it to settle old scores? So, the motivations for these crimes are quite different than what we used to witness."