Estimating Civilian Casualties in Iraq

The bombing of the Shia Askariyah shrine in Samarra threatens to lift the existing low-level civil war in Iraq to the status of a major one. Already, the level of deaths has risen dramatically. Which again raises the question of how little we know (or even seem to care) about the level of Iraqi deaths since the US attack on that country in March 2003.

Z Magazine is an excellent monthly that I subscribe to put out by a very small editorial staff. Each month, there is always some article that I find gripping. In the February 2006 issue, the Nicolas J. S. Davies writes how the civilian casualty estimates in Iraq are being underreported.

In 2000, an international team of epidemiologists, headed by Les Roberts of Johns Hopkins School of Public Health studied the number of casualties in the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Davies says:

In that case, he reported that about 1.7 million people had died during 22 months of war and, as he says, “Tony Blair and Colin Powell quoted those results time and time again without any question as to the precision or validity.” In fact the UN Security Council promptly called for the withdrawal of foreign armies from the Congo and the U.S. State Department cited his study in announcing a grant of $10 million for humanitarian aid.

Roberts conducted a follow-up study in the Congo that raised the fatality estimate to three million and Tony Blair cited that figure in his address to the 2001 Labor Party conference.

Now fast forward to 2004. Using that same methodology, Roberts and his team did estimates for the civilian casualties in Iraq as a consequence of the US attack on that country.

They estimated that at least 98,000 Iraqi civilians had died in the previous 18 months as a direct result of the invasion and occupation of their country. They also found that violence had become the leading cause of death in Iraq during that period. Their most significant finding was that the vast majority (79 percent) of violent deaths were caused by “coalition” forces using “helicopter gunships, rockets or other forms of aerial weaponry,” and that almost half (48 percent) of these were children, with a median age of 8.

This research was published in the prestigious medical journal Lancet. But this time the reaction by the US and British governments was quite different.

Soon after the study was published, U.S. and British officials launched a concerted campaign to discredit its authors and marginalize their findings without seriously addressing the validity of their methods or presenting any evidence to challenge their conclusions.
. . .
Official and media criticism of Roberts’s work has focused on the size of his sample, 988 homes in 33 clusters distributed throughout the country, but other epidemiologists reject the notion that this is controversial.

Michael O’Toole, the director of the Center for International Health in Australia, says: “That’s a classical sample size. I just don’t see any evidence of significant exaggeration…. If anything, the deaths may have been higher because what they are unable to do is survey families where everyone has died.”

David Meddings, a medical officer with the Department of Injuries and Violence Prevention at the World Health Organization, said that surveys of this kind always have uncertainty, but “I don’t think the authors ignored that or understated. Those cautions I don’t believe should be applied any more or less stringently to a study that looks at a politically sensitive conflict than to a study that looks at a pill for heart disease.”

. . .
The campaign to discredit Roberts, the Johns Hopkins team, and the Lancet used the same methods that the U.S. and British governments have employed consistently to protect their monopoly on “responsible” storytelling about the war. By dismissing the study’s findings out of hand, U.S. and British officials created the illusion that the authors were suspect or politically motivated and discouraged the media from taking them seriously. This worked disturbingly well. Even opponents of the war continue to cite much lower figures for civilian casualties and innocently attribute the bulk of them to Iraqi resistance forces or “terrorists.”

Roberts points out that the way they did their research is standard for epidemiology, and yet it is interesting how the media takes sits cues on how to respond to such studies from the way that governments treat them. As Roberts says, “It is odd that the logic of epidemiology embraced by the press every day regarding new drugs or health risks somehow changes when the mechanism of death is their armed forces.”

The media instead prefers to report the much lower figure of around 30,000 deaths that President Bush used in a news conference. But this figure is presumably from the website Iraq Body Count. But the methodology of that site is to only counts deaths that have been confirmed by recognized news sources, which is very likely to lead to undercounting in chaotic conditions.

Roberts says that if at all his team erred on the conservative side. Although his estimates pointed to about 285,000 killed, they reported it only as “at least 100,000.”

Davies concludes his article:

Thanks to Roberts, his international team, Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, and the editorial board of the Lancet, we have a clearer picture of the violence taking place in Iraq than that presented by “mainstream” media. Allowing for 16 months of the air war and other deaths since the completion of the survey, we have to estimate that somewhere between 185,000 and 700,000 people have died as a direct result of the war. Coalition forces have killed anywhere from 70,000 to 500,000 of them, including 30,000 to 275,000 children under the age of 15. (my emphasis)

This is an appalling level of death and destruction unleashed from the air, reminiscent of the aerial warfare waged in Vietnam.

The fact that nearly 80% of the civilian casualties are caused by aerial bombardment is significant. American reporters tend to travel with US ground troops and thus are not seeing the real war that is going on. In fact, Davies suggests that it is when media attention on focused on ground offensives that aerial bombardment is unleashed elsewhere and thus escapes scrutiny. This is why the reports of Iraqi and other Arab journalists, who can travel more freely throughout the country than western journalists, are more likely to present a truer picture of what is actually going on.

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