Counting Iraq’s Dead




, the premier British medical journal, has published two reports
by a team of epidemiologists about the Iraqi death toll, one in 2004 and
a second in October 2006. The team’s leader, Les Roberts, stands by his
team’s claim that an estimated 600,000 Iraqis have been killed as a result
of the U.S.-led war that started in March 2003. Yet his team and report
faced an establishment backlash. President George W. Bush and the U.S.
military dismissed the report. Christopher Hitchens scoffed at it while
other pro-war pundits in mainstream print and web publications claimed
it lacked scientific merit. 

For both


studies, Roberts’s team went to Iraq and interviewed households
to help determine how many families had died. He calls this method a cluster
mortality survey. Even Roberts’s critics admit that the team verified information
through death certificates. The team’s reports were also peer reviewed,
Roberts insisted. 

Roberts has gone to war zones in various nations—Bosnia, Rwanda, and the
Congo to name a few. While still an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University,
he also works at Columbia University and lectures widely. 

PAUL: When you were in Iraq did it seem like a place where 600,000 people
had died? 

ROBERTS: At the time, it certainly felt like there was a lot more death
than was captured in the U.S. press. People put up these little flags when
a loved one dies. In places like Sadr City they were everywhere. Thousands
of them. I have quite a few Iraqi friends. They all tell me that they’ve
lost a cousin. 

A lot of critics say that the methodology used in the


report was
unorthodox or inaccurate. What has been your response? 

When the United Nations comes to a relatively dysfunctional, poor country,
they use a cluster mortality survey like this. When the Center for Disease
Control went to Kosovo at the end of the war, they used a cluster survey
very much like this one. And this is the standard. When President Bush
recently quoted that probably more than 200,000 people have died in Darfur,
that information came mostly from cluster mortality surveys. In fact, the
U.S. government, ironically, is funding a sort of training and development
initiative to get people who work in emergencies to use cluster surveys
to measure mortality during crises. 

Why do you think there has been a backlash against the report? 

There are many people who have been working hard to monitor the deaths
from a distance by other means. For our report to come out was an ideological
blow. It threatened their personal efforts. 

Why do you think there was a gap between your estimate and that of Iraq
Body Count? 

I’ve now worked in eight hot war zones. It always happens that surveillance
processes are less complete than when you go door to door and collect information
yourself. For example, I saw a comment from someone at the CDC about a
certain bacteria that seemed to be causing an outbreak. It said they only
caught about 3 percent of all the outbreaks in the country through surveillance
networks. For folks who work in public health, we know that most measles
cases in this country aren’t reported even though they’re supposed to be
by law. These processes are often incomplete. 

What effect did you want the


studies to have? 

When I first went, I assumed most of the people were dying from diarrhea,
women dying at childbirth, and all the consequences of social dysfunction
that accompanies war. In Africa more people die from infectious diseases
during war than from bullets and bombs. I expected that to be true in Iraq,
but it wasn’t. So when I first went, I thought our team would be rallying
for humanitarian aid for the Iraqi people. But what we found was that violence
was the main cause of death. This second time, I think the motive is more
to bridge the clear gap or contrast in perspective between the Middle East
and the West in terms of what is going on in Iraq. 

Are you going back? 

Not for a while. It is my hope that a neutral, high profile agency like
the Red Cross or Epicentre will go and either verify or refute our findings.
I think that would serve society the best. It is tragic at this moment
that we are quibbling about trivial, methodological concerns that people
have, rather than as a society responding to the horror that is going on
in Iraq.

Ari Paul is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in

Prospect, In These Times

, and

Z Magazine