Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Calculating the dead in Iraq

Documenting the number killed in a war zone is “hard work.” It takes something called a large scale mortality study. Only one has been done in Iraq, published in the British medical journal, The Lancet, and released two days before the 2004 election. It did not get much press coverage, partly because of its timing drew suspicions of partisanship. Also, the figure was much larger than other estimates at the time, but the more I learn about the study, the more likely it is that 100,000 was the best estimate, and if anything, low. The study was done by a team of public health researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the Columbia University School of Nursing, and the College of Medicine at Al-Mustansiriya University in Baghdad. Dr. Roberts, the lead author, has testified before congress and is a recognized world expert in counting war dead. His Congo study found 1.7 million civilians killed, a figure cited by Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Tony Blair before Parliament. He has also done surveys in Burundi, Rwanda and Sierra Leone. Most of the Iraq survey team were medical doctors. To Dr. Roberts, Iraq was interesting since the US claimed to have taken unprecedented measures to avoid civilian casualties, with 2/3 of the bombs dropped being precision guided. The researchers knew though, from past experience, that it isn’t bombs and bullets that kill most people in war, but the destruction of basic services that leads to disease. To begin, the team used the latest census to map the entire Iraqi population. A random number generator was used to pick 33 points on that map, in small towns and large cities. They randomly picked a GPS coordinate within each community and surveyed the nearest 30 houses to that point. The study surveyed 7,868 people in 988 households for births and deaths before and after the invasion. Election polls use a similar method of sampling and are rarely more than 10% off. The study yielded a conservative estimate of 98,000 excess deaths in the 18 months after the invasion compared to the 15 months before. This estimate did not include Fallujah, a city the size of Cleveland that had been destroyed as a lesson to the resistance, for their killing of 4 US mercenaries. Although Fallujah was randomly chosen, its death rate was so high it was omitted. As data was collected, Dr. Roberts was shocked to see, for the first time in any of his surveys, more deaths from bullets and bombs than from disease. The study showed most people died from coalition attacks and most of those were women and children. But surprisingly it wasn’t soldiers running amuck. Most of the deaths were caused by US "helicopter gun ships, rockets, or other forms of aerial weaponry." There are particulars to this study that indicate its estimate was low. Omitting Fallujah meant excluding all of Anbar province, Ramadi and areas near the Syrian border. Najaf and Sadr City were also excluded due to random chance. These areas have been the main sites of furious fighting and US bombing in Iraq. Meanwhile, the 2 Kurdish provinces, where no fighting occurred, were included. Since 2004, things have worsened. In August, 2005, Robert Fisk reported being shown the computer at the main Baghdad morgue, which is prohibited by the US installed government. It showed 1,100 Iraqis dead in Baghdad alone in just July. In a February, 2006 update to the Lancet study, Dr. Roberts estimated 300,000 Iraqi civilian deaths since the invasion. This is supported by Dahr Jamail’s April 12, 2006 interview with a Baghdad morgue employee who said, “The average (number of bodies they receive) is probably over 85” a day. As the US transitions to the “Salvador Option” of supporting death squads and relying on greater airpower to try and decrease US casualties, Iraqis will continue to die in greater numbers.

Jim Silva
Lompoc Coalition for Peace and Justice