More deadly than Saddam
By GWYNNE DYER
Times" -- -- LONDON -- The final indignity, if
you are an Iraqi who was shot for accidentally turning into the
path of a U.S. military convoy (they thought you might be a
terrorist), or blown apart by a car bomb or an airstrike, or
tortured and murdered by kidnappers, or just for being a Sunni
or a Shiite, is that U.S. President George W. Bush and British
Prime Minister Tony Blair will deny that your death happened.
The script they are working from says (in Bush's words last
December) that only "30,000, more or less" have been killed in
Iraq during and since the invasion in March, 2003.
So they have a huge incentive to discredit the report in the
British medical journal The Lancet last week that an extra
655,000 Iraqis have died since the invasion in excess of the
natural death rate: 2.5 percent of the population.
"I don't consider it a credible report," said Bush, without
giving any reason why he didn't.
"It is a fairly small sample they have taken and they have
extrapolated it across the country," said a spokesman of the
British Foreign Office, as if that were an invalid methodology.
But it's not.
The study, led by Dr. Les Roberts and a team of epidemiologists
from the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins
University in Baltimore, was based on a survey of 1,849
households, containing 12,801 people, at 47 different locations
chosen at random in Iraq. Teams of four Iraqi doctors -- two men
and two women -- went from house to house and asked the
residents if anybody had died in their family since January,
2002 (15 months before the invasion).
If anybody had, they then inquired when and how the person had
died. They asked for death certificates, and in 92 percent of
cases the families produced them. Then the Johns Hopkins team of
epidemiologists tabulated the statistics and drew their
The most striking thing in the study, in terms of credibility,
is that the prewar death rate in Iraq for the period January
2002-March 2003, as calculated from their evidence, was 5.5 per
thousand per year. That is virtually identical to the U.S.
government estimate of the death rate in Iraq for the same
period. Then, from the same evidence, they calculate that the
death rate since the invasion has been 13.3 per thousand per
year. The difference between the prewar and postwar death rates
over a period of 40 months is 655,000 deaths.
More precisely, the deaths reported by the 12,801 people
surveyed, when extrapolated to the entire country, indicates a
range of between 426,369 and 793,663 excess deaths -- but the
sample is big enough that there is a 95 percent certainty that
the true figure is within that range. What the Johns Hopkins
team have done in Iraq is more rigorous version of the technique
that is used to calculate deaths in southern Sudan and the
eastern Congo. To reject it, you must either reject the whole
discipline of statistics, or you must question the professional
integrity of those doing the survey.
The study, which was largely financed by the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology's Center for International Studies, has
been reviewed by four independent experts. One of them, Paul
Bolton of Boston University, called the methodology "excellent"
and said it was standard procedure in a wide range of studies he
has worked on: "You can't be sure of the exact number, but you
can be quite sure that you are in the right ballpark."
This is not a political smear job. Johns Hopkins University,
Boston University and MIT are not fly-by-night institutions, and
people who work there have academic reputations to protect. The
Lancet, founded 182 years ago, is one of the oldest and most
respected medical journals in the world. These numbers are real.
So what do they mean?
Two-thirds of a million Iraqis have died since the invasion who
would almost all be alive if it had not happened. Human Rights
Watch has estimated that between 250,000 and 290,000 Iraqis were
killed during Saddam Hussein's 20-year rule, so perhaps 40,000
people might have died between the invasion and now if he had
stayed in power. (Though probably not anything like that many,
really, because the great majority of Saddam's killings happened
during crises like the Kurdish rebellion of the late 1980s and
the Shiite revolt after the 1990-91 Gulf War.)
Of the 655,000 excess deaths since March 2003, only about 50,000
can be attributed to stress, malnutrition, the collapse of
medical services as doctors flee abroad, and other side effects
of the occupation. All the rest are violent deaths, and 31
percent are directly due to the actions of foreign "coalition"
The most disturbing thing is the breakdown of the causes of
death. Over half the deaths -- 56 percent -- are due to gunshot
wounds, but 13 percent are due to airstrikes. Terrorists don't
do airstrikes. No Iraqi government forces do airstrikes, either,
because they don't have combat aircraft. Airstrikes are done by
"coalition forces" (i.e. Americans and British), and airstrikes
in Iraq have killed over 75,000 people since the invasion.
Oscar Wilde once observed that "to lose one parent . . . may be
regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness."
To lose 75,000 Iraqis to airstrikes looks like carelessness,
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose
articles are published in 45 countries.
The Japan Times: Monday, Oct. 16, 2006
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