Nowhere on Earth is there a worse refugee crisis than in Iraq today. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, some two million Iraqis have fled their country and are now scattered from Jordan, Syria, Turkey, and Iran to London and Paris. (Almost none have made it to the United States, which has done nothing to address the refugee crisis it created.) Another 1.9 million are estimated to be internally displaced persons, driven from their homes and neighborhoods by the U.S. occupation and the vicious civil war it has sparked. Add those figures up – and they're getting worse by the day – and you have close to 16% of the Iraqi population uprooted. Add the dead to the displaced, and that figure rises to nearly one in five Iraqis. Let that sink in for a moment.
Basic foods and necessities, which even Saddam Hussein's brutal regime managed to provide, are now increasingly beyond the reach of ordinary Iraqis, thanks to soaring inflation unleashed by the occupation's destruction of the already shaky Iraqi economy, cuts to state subsidies encouraged by the International Monetary Fund and the Coalition Provisional Authority, and the disruption of the oil industry. Prices of vegetables, eggs, tea, cooking and heating oil, gasoline, and electricity have skyrocketed. Unemployment is regularly estimated at somewhere between 50-70%. One measure of the impact of all this has been a significant rise in child malnutrition, registered by the United Nations and other organizations. Not surprisingly, access to safe water and regular electricity remain well below pre-invasion levels, which were already disastrous after more than a decade of comprehensive sanctions against, and periodic bombing of, a country staggered by a catastrophic war with Iran in the 1980s and the First Gulf War.
Since 2003, according to UN estimates, some 200,000 have been killed in the Darfur region of Sudan in a brutal ethnic-cleansing campaign and another 2 million have been turned into refugees.
How would you know this? Well, if you lived in New York City, at least, you could hardly take a subway ride without seeing an ad that reads: "400,000 dead. Millions uniting to save Darfur." The New York Times has also regularly featured full-page ads describing the "genocide" in Darfur and calling for intervention there under "a chain of command allowing necessary and timely military action without approval from distant political or civilian personnel."
In those same years, according to the best estimate available, the British medical journal The Lancet's door-to-door study of Iraqi deaths, approximately 655,000 Iraqis had died in war, occupation, and civil strife between March 2003 and June 2006. (The study offers a low-end possible figure on deaths of 392,000 and a high-end figure of 943,000.) But you could travel coast to coast without seeing the equivalents of the billboards, subway placards, full-page newspaper ads, or the like for the Iraqi dead. And you certainly won't see, as in the case of Darfur, celebrities on Good Morning America talking about their commitment to stopping "genocide" in Iraq.
Why is it that we are counting and thinking about the Sudanese dead as part of a high-profile, celebrity-driven campaign to "Save Darfur," yet Iraqi deaths still go effectively uncounted, and rarely seem to provoke moral outrage, let alone public campaigns to end the killing? And why are the numbers of killed in Darfur cited without any question, while the numbers of Iraqi dead, unless pitifully low-ball figures, are instantly challenged -- or dismissed?
In our world, it seems, there are the worthy victims and the unworthy ones. To get at the difference, consider the posture of the United States toward the Sudan and Iraq. According to the Bush administration, Sudan is a "rogue state"; it is on the State Department's list of "state sponsors of terrorism." It stands accused of attacking the United States through its role in the suicide-boat bombing of the USS Cole in 2000. And then, of course -- as Mahmood Mamdani pointed out in the London Review of Books recently -- Darfur fits neatly into a narrative of "Muslim-on-Muslim violence," of a "genocide perpetrated by Arabs," a line of argument that appeals heavily to those who would like to change the subject from what the United States has done -- and is doing -- in Iraq. Talking about U.S. accountability for the deaths of the Iraqis we supposedly liberated is a far less comfortable matter.
This is no small matter. Recent polls of UK opinion on the war found that most Britons oppose the war and want the occupation to end - yet 57% also say that they would support military intervention in the instance of relieving a humanitarian situation or stopping genocide. While all the energy focused on the issue of Darfur on American campuses and so on is by no means a call for war, it does reflect a willingness to countenance the idea of the United States government having positive solutions to such problems - a notion that simply cannot withstand serious analysis. For Iraq is worse. What they have done to Iraq is worse than Darfur by every indice. I am not even convinced that Bush wants war on Darfur, but American state planners are undoubtedly paying close attention to this kind of campaign. They probably don't mind liberal columnists saying that Bush is negligent over Darfur, since such crusading zeal can potentially be put to excellent uses in other situations.