The Number of Civilians Killed in the Iraq War

Eric Gervais has raised an important point in the Comments section of my earlier post on the question of how many civilians have died in the Iraq War. Because the US early on decided that it would be counter to its public relations efforts to keep this count, it simply did not. This appears to have been part of the “VietNam Lesson” series the Pentagon wrongly took away from that war, including: hide dead US soldiers and their returning bodies from media view, control news on the ground in the theater by “embedding” reporters, and, most important, do not show footage of the real fighting/carnage on American TVs. (To see their own war, and their own war dead, Americans have to travel to other countries, outside the propaganda net).

Given that we now not only know that the two major war justifications (WMDs, Al Quaeda connections) were fabricated, the gravity of civilian deaths rises, even as the investigations move on to the real motivations for the Iraq War. (See Richard Clarke’s books, for a start).

Did these people die so that the US could give more access to domestic oil companies, as the country map Richard Clarke describes seeing, parceled out to oil companies by name months before the administration “decided” to go to war, would suggest? Did they die for some propaganda purpose in the Middle East that no one has yet described? Did they die simply to increase Halliburton and other military-industrial payments?  Did they die to pay the price for the competition between Bush pere and Bush fils?

Whatever the reason, they surely died, and it is now painfully obvious that, in addition to the harm done to the U.S. by this mis-guided war, great harm has been done to the civilian population of Iraq.

Eric has pointed to a very interesting site dedicated to this question, which looks to have been formed by non-military academics  in the US and UK for the exact purpose of counting the civilian dead in the war; at

which shows a current minimum of 90,441.

The Guardian recently ran a useful review of various studies on this question, with this conclusion:

“So five years after Bush and Tony Blair launched the invasion of Iraq against the wishes of a majority of UN members, no one knows how many Iraqis have died. We do know that more than two million have fled abroad. Another 1.5 million have sought safety elsewhere in Iraq. We know that the combined horror of car bombs, suicide attacks, sectarian killing and disproportionate US counter-insurgency tactics and air strikes have produced the worst humanitarian catastrophe in today’s world. But the exact death toll remains a mystery.”

The Guardian piece is here:

In my earlier post, I referred to two studies showing 600K to 1MM dead.  Here is the Guardian report on the first of these:

“—two studies led by researchers from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and published in the prominent British medical journal, the Lancet. In the first survey in 2004, 990 randomly selected families in representative locations across Iraq were asked to produce the death certificates and list the names of members who died between January 1 2002 and the start of the invasion, and those who died thereafter. Subtracting the former from the latter, this produced an “excess” rate. This was then used to calculate the deaths in excess of normal fatality rates in Iraq’s total population.

“The first survey found at least 98,000 such deaths up to October 2004. The second survey, in the summer of 2006, interviewed a separate but also randomly chosen sample of 1,849 households and found an excess of 655,000 deaths up to June 2006, of which 601,027 were said to be from violence rather than natural causes. ”

It turns out that internal (not released) British defence reviews of the data tend to support the Johns Hopkins methodology and figures, and an internal memo was sent to the Government cautioning it against undue criticism of the Hopkins study.

The Hopkins researchers have been attacked by war hawks on several fronts; the Guardian piece provides a starting point for other potential weaknesses and defenses of the study.

But, as I noted in my earlier posting, newer studies are generally producing even higher findings.  From the Guardian:

“Finally, they point out that more recent data confirm their findings and even suggest a higher figure. The British polling firm Opinion Research Business (ORB) asked 1,720 Iraqi adults last summer if they had lost family members by violence since 2003; 16% had lost one, and 5% two. Using the 2005 census total of 4,050,597 households in Iraq, this suggests 1,220,580 deaths since the invasion. Accounting for a standard margin of error, ORB says, “We believe the range is a minimum of 733,158 to a maximum of 1,446,063.”

“One expert also believes the number of civilian casualties may be higher than the Baltimore/Lancet figure. Frederick “Skip” Burkle is a professor in the department of public health and epidemiology at Harvard University who ran Iraq’s ministry of health after the war but was sacked by the US and replaced by a Bush loyalist. He says the survey ignored the occupation’s indirect or secondary casualties – deaths caused by the destruction of health services, unemployment and lack of electricity. Two surveys by non-government organisations found a rise in infant mortality and malnutrition, he notes, so why are those figures not reflected in the second study that appeared in the Lancet?”

One feels safe assuming some increased mortality rates from the destruction of infrastructure and healthcare facilities, but this was not part of the direct-violence profile used in the Hopkins/Lancet studies.

My own thoughts are that this complex of studies is actually rather coherent and simple, with numbers representing methods.  The IBC study, based primarily on matched media reports, NGO reports, and morgue and hospital data, show the smallest numbers.  I expect it is safe to say that these are a minimum, and, given the chaos in Iraq, one that intentionally falls short.  To only record those deaths reported by global media, with each death needing confirmation by another source, many many dead will be missed.  Just the asssumption that every death will be accompanied by a reporter (two reporters) and a report (two reports), is clearly wrong.  Likewise, assuming every body will come through a morgue or hospital, or that these will have complete records, also seems wrong.

Again, the Guardian:

“The director of the Baghdad morgue, already under stress because of the mounting horror of his work, was threatened with death on the grounds that by publishing statistics he was causing embarrassment. The families of the bereaved wanted him to tell the truth, but like other professionals he came to the view that he had to flee Iraq.”

Using these techniques, IBC reports between 90,400 to 98,700 civilian deaths to date.  This conservative floor remains much higher than Bush administration claims of somewhere in the 15K+ region.

When this argument has continued for awhile, it is likely that no single study will prevail, but that the method of counting by randomized, direct survey will be the most accurate method.  It is hard to make the argument, outside of scientific circles, that ethics or war crimes tribunals will distinguish between whether there were 100K deaths officially recognized by media and government, or 600K civilians actually killed, or twice that figure.

Who is responsible for these deaths?   Why did these people die?  For what?  Non existent WMDs?  Non existent Iraqi Al Qaeda?

Let’s say George Bush’s idea of Pre-emptive War has just killed something like 500k-1MM innocent civilians in Iraq, and that the war itself was a mistake.  Or, much more worrisome, along Clarke’s lines, it was not a mistake at all.  According to one of Rumsfeld’s top aides, who took notes at a meeting on 9.11, Rumsfeld wanted to go after Saddam “whether or not he was relevant” to the 9.11 attack.

Now what happens?  Golf in Dallas? Cheney speechifying in Jackson Hole? Rummy rewriting history?

Now what happens?