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A grisly debate
How many civilian deaths in Iraq since invasion?
Published Jan 19, 2008 10:36 AM
There is evidence that a new, extensive study of violent deaths in Iraq under
the U.S. occupation severely understates the number of Iraqi dead.
The apparent goal of the study was to undermine confidence in an earlier study
reporting many more Iraqi deaths over the same period. A look at the
study’s political impact as well as its technique reveals this.
Researchers from the World Health Organization (WHO) reported on Jan. 9 that
the best estimate of the number of violent deaths of Iraqi civilians between
March 2003 and June 2006 is 151,000. Their report is based on an extensive
questionnaire of Iraqi households in 2006 carried out by the Ministry of Health
of the puppet Iraqi regime. The report was published in the New England Journal
of Medicine (NEJM).
The WHO report reveals its political character by specifically mentioning, for
comparison, two other estimates of violent deaths in Iraq over the same exact
period. The Iraq Body Count (IBC), compiled by a group in Britain that uses
mainly media reports of violent deaths, put this number at 48,000. A Johns
Hopkins study, published in the Lancet, a British medical journal,
estimated the violent deaths in that period at about 600,000.
For simplicity we have rounded off the published numbers, which are rough
Politically as well as numerically, the WHO report is a compromise between the
two others. While it is three times the IBC number, it is only one-fourth the
Johns Hopkins number.
Bush minimizes deaths
U.S. imperialism in general and the Bush administration in particular would
like to minimize the perception of the damage the U.S.-British war and
occupation have done. Bush even tries to argue that the invasion somehow
“helped” the Iraqi people.
When the IBC first started publishing Iraqi death figures, both Bush and
British Prime Minister Tony Blair attacked the IBC for exaggerating. Later,
after the Hopkins estimates were published, Bush’s public statements on
Iraq started using numbers close to the much lower IBC number. Bush also has
tried to blame the civilian deaths on the resistance or on what he describes as
Few people now believe that even the violent deaths tabulated from media
accounts, which report deaths almost exclusively from bombings and only in the
big cities, can be accurately estimated.
Sympathizers with the Iraqi resistance and many anti-war people worldwide have
accepted the Hopkins estimate as reasonable. These numbers, based on a standard
sampling technique, are far more believable than those of the IBC.
The Hopkins estimates have a political impact. Add the deaths since June 2006
to the 600,000 figure given at that time and the estimated number is greater
than 1 million. This number turns the U.S. occupation of Iraq from a
“normal” illegal war into an act of genocide. And that is why
Washington wants to discredit the Hopkins study.
Add to the 1 million deaths those 1.5 million from the 1990-2003 period caused
by the U.S. sanctions on Iraq and Washington’s policies have caused the
deaths of between 2 million and 3 million Iraqis: children, civilians and
combatants. In addition, the U.S. occupation has still failed after 58 months
to restore any semblance of stability to Iraq. People still have inadequate
health care, little access to potable water, poor sewage systems and little
electricity. “Non-violent” deaths from these sources are not even
included in the totals discussed in the WHO report.
Much of the U.S. media accepted the WHO report, but mainly in order to attack
the Hopkins report. Had there been no Hopkins study, this same media would
undoubtedly have challenged and attacked a report of 151,000 deaths when Bush
was claiming only 50,000.
Problems with WHO study
The WHO study interviewed people in 1,080 “clusters” and 10,800
households. Although this was five times bigger than the Johns Hopkins sample,
both samples, if random, are large enough to get accurate results under normal
But conditions were far from normal. The unstable and dangerous conditions are
themselves proof of the failure of the occupation. It is impossible to make a
universally acceptable estimate of the deaths. The Iraqi regime cannot even
take an accurate census of the population.
Below are three factors that contributed to inaccuracies of the study and an
understatement of deaths.
Some 115 of the 1080 clusters (10.6 percent) were in areas so dangerous that
the investigators in the Ministry of Health would not risk entering them. These
were in Anbar and Nineveh provinces and parts of Baghdad. The WHO study had to
use IBC figures in those areas as a basis to estimate deaths there. Since media
coverage was so spotty in these provinces, the IBC approach would lead to
underestimates of the deaths.
Those asking the questions were connected to the puppet government, and many
people could have feared giving honest answers if it made them seem like
relatives of resisters. Les Roberts, one of the principal authors of the Johns
Hopkins studies, says of the WHO report: “We confirmed our deaths with
death certificates, they did not. As the NEJM [WHO] study’s interviewers
worked for one side in this conflict, it is likely that people would be
unwilling to admit violent deaths to the study workers.”
A third important factor is that the IBC and Johns Hopkins studies, plus
general knowledge about the level of the fighting in Iraq, all point to an
increase in deaths from year to year. But the WHO study finds deaths to be
steady, year by year. Roberts writes: “They roughly found a steady rate
of violence from 2003 to 2006. Baghdad morgue data, Najaf burial data, Pentagon
attack data, and our data all show a dramatic increase over 2005 and
This and other factors indicate that the report understates violent deaths and
thus minimizes the extent of the U.S. crimes in Iraq.
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