Iraq's death toll is far
worse than our leaders admit
The US and Britain have triggered an episode more deadly
than the Rwandan genocide
By Les Roberts
On both sides of the Atlantic, a process of spinning
science is preventing a serious discussion about the
state of affairs in Iraq.
Independent" -- -- The government in Iraq
claimed last month that since the 2003 invasion between
40,000 and 50,000 violent deaths have occurred. Few have
pointed out the absurdity of this statement.
There are three ways we know it is a gross
underestimate. First, if it were true, including
suicides, South Africa, Colombia, Estonia, Kazakhstan,
Latvia, Lithuania and Russia have experienced higher
violent death rates than Iraq over the past four years.
If true, many North and South American cities and
Sub-Saharan Africa have had a similar murder rate to
that claimed in Iraq. For those of us who have been in
Iraq, the suggestion that New Orleans is more violent
seems simply ridiculous.
Secondly, there have to be at least 120,000 and probably
140,000 deaths per year from natural causes in a country
with the population of Iraq. The numerous stories we
hear about overflowing morgues, the need for new
cemeteries and new body collection brigades are not
consistent with a 10 per cent rise in death rate above
And finally, there was a study, peer-reviewed and
published in The Lancet, Europe's most prestigious
medical journal, which put the death toll at 650,000 as
of last July. The study, which I co-authored, was done
by the standard cluster approach used by the UN to
estimate mortality in dozens of countries each year.
While the findings are imprecise, the lower range of
possibilities suggested that the Iraq government was at
least downplaying the number of dead by a factor of 10.
There are several reasons why the governments involved
in this conflict have been able to confuse the issue of
Iraqi deaths. Our Lancet report involved sampling and
statistical analysis, which is rather dry reading. Media
reports always miss most deaths in times of war, so the
estimate by the media-based monitoring system,
Iraqbodycount.org (IBC) roughly corresponds with the
Iraq government's figures. Repeated evaluations of
deaths identified from sources independent of the press
and the Ministry of Health show the IBC listing to be
less than 10 per cent complete, but because it matches
the reports of the governments involved, it is easily
Several other estimates have placed the death toll far
higher than the Iraqi government estimates, but those
have received less press attention. When in 2005, a UN
survey reported that 90 per cent of violent attacks in
Scotland were not recorded by the police, no one, not
even the police, disputed this finding. Representative
surveys are the next best thing to a census for counting
deaths, and nowhere but Iraq have partial tallies from
morgues and hospitals been given such credence when
representative survey results are available.
The Pentagon will not release information about deaths
induced or amounts of weaponry used in Iraq. On 9
January of this year, the embedded Fox News reporter
Brit Hume went along for an air attack, and we learned
that at least 25 targets were bombed that day with
almost no reports of the damage appearing in the press.
Saddam Hussein's surveillance network, which only
captured one third of all deaths before the invasion,
has certainly deteriorated even further. During last
July, there were numerous televised clashes in Anbar,
yet the system recorded exactly zero violent deaths from
the province. The last Minister of Health to honestly
assess the surveillance network, Dr Ala'din Alwan,
admitted that it was not reporting from most of the
country by August 2004. He was sacked months later
after, among other things, reports appeared based on the
limited government data suggesting that most violent
deaths were associated with coalition forces.
The consequences of downplaying the number of deaths in
Iraq are profound for both the UK and the US. How can
the Americans have a surge of troops to secure the
population and promise success when the coalition cannot
measure the level of security to within a factor of 10?
How can the US and Britain pretend they understand the
level of resentment in Iraq if they are not sure if, on
average, one in 80 families have lost a household
member, or one in seven, as our study suggests?
If these two countries have triggered an episode more
deadly than the Rwandan genocide, and have actively
worked to mask this fact, how will they credibly be able
to criticise Sudan or Zimbabwe or the next government
that kills thousands of its own people?
For longer than the US has been a nation, Britain has
pushed us at our worst of moments to do the right thing.
That time has come again with regard to Iraq. It is
wrong to be the junior partner in an endeavour rigged to
deny the next death induced, and to have spokespeople
effectively respond to that death with disinterest and
Our nations' leaders are collectively expressing
belligerence at a time when the populace knows they
should be expressing contrition. If that cannot be
corrected, Britain should end its role in this
deteriorating misadventure. It is unlikely that any
historians will record the occupation of Iraq in a
favourable light. Britain followed the Americans into
this débâcle. Wouldn't it be better to let history
record that Britain led them out?
The writer is an Associate Professor at Columbia
University's Mailman School of Public Health
© 2007 Independent News and Media Limited