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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 estimates.

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 “Al Qaeda.”

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 conditions.

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 2006.”

This and other factors indicate that the report understates violent deaths and thus minimizes the extent of the U.S. crimes in Iraq.