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100,000 Iraqis Dead: Should We Believe It?


[corrected 11/5/04*]

 

          One justification for the Iraq war was to remove the barbarous regime of Saddam Hussein, thereby freeing Iraqis from the threat of death at the hands of his regime. Yet, from the first days of the war, accounts have surfaced of Iraqi civilian deaths at the hands of “coalition forces” and from the increased crime and chaos that have swept much of the country.

 

          The United States and its British and other allies claim they do everything in their power to prevent civilian casualties. Yet, repeatedly accounts have appeared of civilians dying at checkpoints, in passing American convoys, in house searches, and in the relentless bombing campaigns that are allegedly precision strikes on known terrorist hideouts. Reports have also surfaced about increased murder rates.[1] If the rates of Iraqi civilian deaths increased significantly since the invasion, it would undercut the last remaining rationale for the war.

 

          So, how many Iraqis have died since the invasion in March 2003 and the subsequent occupation and war? The United States has repeatedly insisted that it doesn’t keep track of civilian deaths. In the infamous words of General Tommy Franks, “We don’t do body counts”[2] (though, claims remain that the US does do secret body counts[3]). Furthermore, when the Iraqi health Ministry attempted to count civilian deaths, they were summarily ordered to stop by the US occupation authorities.[4]

 

While the US military and occupation authorities may profess a lack of interest in Iraqi civilian deaths, decent people around the world are concerned to know whether Iraqis have died post-invasion at rates that would substantially undermine any alleged humanitarian benefit of the war.

 

Perhaps the best known estimate of civilian deaths from the fighting is that of the Iraq Body Count project.[5] This British-based group of researchers has systematically examined the western press and collated all accounts of civilian casualties. They tabulate all deaths that are independently reported by two sources. Based on this rigorous methodology, they estimate civilian casualties from the invasion until October 29, 2004 at between 14,181 and 16,312. Other estimates have come from the Brookings Institution[6] (between 15,200 and 31,400 “killed as a result of violence from war and crime between May, 2003 and September 30, 2004.” Some of their estimates are based on Iraq Body Count data), and the Iraqi People’s Kifah[7] (through a household survey they identified 37,000 deaths between March and October 2003).

 

With the exception of the People’s Kifah estimates, which might be considered suspect as they are an anti-occupation organization and they have published no details about their methods (and which only covers the first eight months of war and occupation), these estimates largely are based on western press accounts. As is acknowledged by Iraq Body Count, such accounts likely underestimate deaths as many, perhaps most, battles and other military actions, and resultant Iraqi deaths, are often not reported unless coalition forces suffered casualties.[8] Additionally, in recent months western reporters have been unable to move about Iraq independently, meaning that even such high-profile claims of mass civilian deaths from US bombing as the killing by US bombing of upwards of 45 Iraqis at a wedding party in the town of Mogr el-Deeb in May[9] could not be independently verified. Thus, all previous estimates of Iraq civilian deaths since the invasion are probably on the low side.

 

In order to address the question of how many Iraqi deaths have occurred, a team of public health researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the Columbia University School of Nursing, and the College of Medicine at Al-Mustansiriya University in Baghdad undertook an epidemiologic survey of “excess Iraqi” deaths since the March, 2003 invasion.[10] This high-powered research team combined epidemiologic expertise with a background in studying people in disaster and emergency situations and an in-depth knowledge of Iraq. Members of the team have carried out research and consulting in many parts of the world, including Iraq, sub-Saharan Africa, and Eastern Europe and have worked with such organizations as the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.[11-13]

 

The results of the research by this team have surprised many. The researchers estimated that there were 98,000 more deaths in the 18 months after the invasion than there would have been if Iraqis had died at the same rate as during the 15 months prior to invasion.

 

This report has stirred up quite a storm. The British Government has challenged it.[14] The Washington Post quoted a “senior military analyst” at Human Rights Watch as saying “The methods that they used are certainly prone to inflation due to overcounting…. These numbers seem to be inflated”.[15] On the other hand, numerous critics of the war and continuing US occupation have latched on to these results as further evidence of the destructiveness of the US-British invasion.[16-20]

 

So how should one evaluate this study? While it may be tempting for those outraged by this war from the beginning to accept these results uncritically, those of us who also believe our politics should be guided by facts and a search for the truth should approach these findings with caution. All controversial research needs to be carefully examined for evidence of methodological problems or other flaws.

 

As an activist who is also a psychological and public health researcher with experience conducting prevalence surveys, and a teacher of statistics and social research methods, I’d like take a look at this study to help readers judge it for themselves. Researchers early learn the folly of latching onto results simply because they support our preexisting beliefs.

 

          First I’ll briefly describe the methodology of the study. Then I’ll evaluate it.

 

The Study Methodology

 

          The researchers used a traditional epidemiologic technique called a clustered sample survey. Without getting into technical details, the country was divided into a number (33 in this instance) of subgroups and a community was randomly selected from each cluster. In each community, Global Positioning System (GPS) devices combined with random numbers were used to select a particular point in the community. Then the nearest 30 household were surveyed; these 30 households are referred to as a

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