U.S. Business Will Try To Discredit Iraq
"Excess' Death Toll" Study
By Juan Cole10/11/06 "Information
A careful Johns Hopkins study has estimated
420,000 and 790,000 Iraqis have died as a result of war and
political violence since the beginning of the US invasion in
Interesting conclusions are that we are wrong to focus so much
on suicide car bombings. The real action is just shooting
enemies down with bullets. Only 30 percent of the deaths have
been caused by the US military, and that percentage has declined
this year because of the sectarian war.
And, folks, this is a major civil war, with something close to
200,000 dying every year.
I once warned that a precipitate US withdrawal could result in a
million dead a la Cambodia or Afghanistan. Little did I know
that the conditions created by the US invasion and occupation
have all along been driving toward that number anyway!
This study is going to have a hard ride. In part it is because
many of us in the information business are not statistically
literate enough to judge the sampling techniques. Many will tend
to dismiss the findings as implausible without a full
appreciation of how low the margin of error is this time.
Second, it is a projection, and all projections are subject to
possible error, and journalists, being hardnosed people, are
wary of them.
The New York Times report has already made a serious error,
saying that deaths in the Saddam period were covered up. The
families interviewed knew whether their loved ones were
disappearing in 2001 and 2002 and had no reason to cover it up
if they were. The survey established the baseline with a
contemporary questionnaire. It wasn't depending on Iraqi
Another reason for the hard ride is that the Republican Party
and a significant fraction of the business elite in this country
is very invested in the Iraq War, and they will try to discredit
the study. Can you imagine the profits being made by the
military-industrial complex on all this? Do they really want the
US public to know the truth about what the weapons they produce
have done to Iraqis? When you see someone waxing cynical about
the study, ask yourself: Does this person know what a chi square
is? And, who does this person work for, really?
Then Anthony Cordesmann told AP that the timing and content of
the study were political. But is he saying that 1800 households
from all over Iraq conspired to lie to Johns Hopkins University
researchers for the purpose of defeating Republicans in US
elections this November? Does that make any
if Cordesmann has evidence that the authors and editor set their
timetable for completion and publication according to the US
political calendar, he should provide it. If he cannot, he
Ironically enough, the same journalists who will question this
study will accept without query the estimates for deaths in
Darfur, e.g., which are generated by exactly the same
techniques, and which are almost certainly not as solid.
The study concludes that an average of 470 Iraqis per day have
likely died as a result of political violence since March 19,
2003, though the number could be as low as 350 per day if the
margin of error skewed to the low side. United Nations estimates
based on figures from Iraqi morgues are more like 100 per day.
I follow the violence in Iraq carefully and daily, and I find
the results plausible.
First of all, Iraqi Muslims don't believe in embalming or open
casket funerals days later. They believe that the body should be
buried by sunset the day of death, in a plain wooden box. So
there is no reason to expect them to take the body to the
morgue. Although there are benefits to registering with the
government for a death certificate, there are also
disadvantages. Many families who have had someone killed believe
that the government or the Americans were involved, and will
have wanted to avoid drawing further attention to themselves by
filling out state forms and giving their address.
Personally, I believe very large numbers of Iraqi families
quietly bury their dead without telling the government of all
people anything about it. Another large number of those killed
is dumped in the Tigris river by their killers. A fisherman on
the Tigris looking for lunch recently caught the corpse of a
woman. The only remarkable thing about it is that he let it be
known to the newspapers. I'm sure the Tigris fishermen throw
back unwanted corpses every day.
Not to mention that for substantial periods of time since 2003
it has been dangerous in about half the country just to move
around, much less to move around with dead bodies.
There is heavy fighting almost every day at Ramadi in al-Anbar
province, among guerrillas, townspeople, tribes, Marines and
Iraqi police and army. We almost never get a report of these
skirmishes and we almost never are told about Iraqi casualties
in Ramadi. Does 1 person a day die there of political violence?
Is it more like 4? 10? What about Samarra? Tikrit? No one is
saying. Since they aren't, on what basis do we say that the
Lancet study is impossible?
There are about 90 major towns and cities in Iraq. If we
subtract Baghdad, where about 100 a day die, that still leaves
89. If an average of 4 or so are killed in each of those 89,
then the study's results are correct. Of course, 4 is an
average. Cities in areas dominated by the guerrilla movement
will have more than 4 killed daily, sleepy Kurdish towns will
have no one killed.
If 470 were dying every day, what would that look like?
West Baghdad is roughly 10% of the Iraqi population. It is
certainly generating 47 dead a day. Same for Sadr City, same
proportions. So to argue against the study you have to assume
that Baquba, Hilla, Kirkuk, Kut, Amara, Samarra, etc., are not
producing deaths at the same rate as the two halves of Baghad.
But it is perfectly plausible that rough places like Kut and
Amara, with their displaced Marsh Arab populations, are keeping
up their end. Four dead a day in Kut or Amara at the hands of
militiamen or politicized tribesmen? Is that really hard to
believe? Have you been reading this column the last three years?
Or let's take the city of Basra, which is also roughly 10% of
the Iraqi population. Proportionally speaking, you'd expect on
the order of 40 persons to be dying of political violence there
every day. We don't see 40 persons from Basra reported dead in
the wire services on a daily basis.
But last May, the government authorities in Basra came out and
admitted that security had collapsed in the city and that for
the previous month, one person had been assassinated every hour.
Now, that is 24 dead a day, just from political assassination.
Apparently these persons were being killed in faction fighting
among Shiite militias and Marsh Arab tribes. We never saw any of
those 24 deaths a day reported in the Western press. And we
never see any deaths from Basra reported in the wire services on
a daily basis even now. Has security improved since May? No one
seems even to be reporting on it, yes or no.
So if 24 Iraqis can be shot down every day in Basra for a month
(or for many months?) and no one notices, the Lancet
results are perfectly plausible.
The abstract for the study says:
' Methods: Between May and July 2006 a national
cluster survey was conducted in Iraq to assess deaths
occurring during the period from January 1, 2002, through
the time of survey in 2006. Information on deaths from 1,849
households containing 12,801 persons was collected. This
survey followed a similar but smaller survey conducted in
Iraq in 2004. Both surveys used standard methods for
estimating deaths in conflict situations, using
Key Findings: Death rates were 5.5/1000/year
pre-invasion, and overall, 13.2/1000/year for the 40 months
post-invasion. We estimate that through July 2006, there
have been 654,965 “excess deaths”—fatalities above the
pre-invasion death rate—in Iraq as a consequence of the war.
Of post-invasion deaths, 601,027 were due to violent causes.
Non-violent deaths rose above the pre-invasion level only in
2006. Since March 2003, an additional 2.5% of Iraq’s
population have died above what would have occurred without
The proportion of deaths ascribed to coalition forces has
diminished in 2006, though the actual numbers have increased
each year. Gunfire remains the most common reason for death,
though deaths from car bombing have increased from 2005.
Those killed are predominantly males aged 15-44 years. '
More on the techniques from the text:
' The surveyors from the School of Medicine of Al
Mustansiria University in Baghdad conducted a national
survey between May and July 2006. In this survey, sites were
collected according to the population size and the
geographic distribution in Iraq. The survey included 16 of
the 18 governates in Iraq, with larger population areas
having more sample sites. The sites were selected entirely
at random, so all households had an equal chance of being
included. The survey used a standard cluster survey method,
which is a recommended method for measuring deaths in
conflict situations. The survey team visited 50 randomly
selected sites in Iraq, and at each site interviewed 40
households about deaths which had occurred from January 1,
2002, until the date of the interview in July 2006. We
selected this time frame to compare results with our
Human Cost of Iraq War survey, which covered the period
between January 2002 and September 2004. In all, information
was collected from 1,849 households completing the survey,
containing 12,801 persons.
This sample size was selected to be able to statistically
detect death rates with 95% probability of obtaining the
correct result. When the preliminary results were reviewed,
it was apparent three clusters were misattributed. These
were dropped from the data for analysis, giving a final
total of 47 clusters, which are the basis of this study. '
Juan Cole is President of the Global Americana Institute.
Visit his website
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