The Iraqi Toll

Truth Is the First Casualty

"I would say 30,000, more or less, have died as a result of the initial incursion and the ongoing violence against Iraqis." That was President George W. Bush, speaking to the World Affairs Council in Philadelphia on Dec. 12, in his first public acknowledgement of any overall estimate of civilian deaths in the Iraq war. The president did not distinguish between Iraqi military and civilian deaths, and later the White House said the number was based on press estimates. If so, it was an odd statistic, since in October the Defense Department issued a report to Congress ("Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq") that estimated 26,000 Iraqi civilian deaths as a consequence of insurgent attacks. Taken by itself, that would suggest the president believes U.S. and "Coalition" forces are responsible for fewer than 5,000 Iraqi deaths since the March 2003 invasion.

More likely, Bush was simply borrowing the now-conventional media estimate, most often attributed to the Web-based project Iraq Body Count, which bases its numbers on confirmed online media reports of deaths "resulting directly from military action by the USA and its allies" – not deaths attributable to insurgent attacks, an entirely distinct category. That would suggest a minimum estimate should add the two numbers: the IBC's roughly 30,000 to the Pentagon's 26,000, for a very rough total of 56,000 Iraqi deaths due to the war, but blurring the already imprecise distinction between civilian and military casualties. (Interestingly, the Pentagon report claims that while 80% of insurgent attacks are aimed at Coalition forces, 80% of the casualties from such attacks are civilian.) Although the Geneva Convention and related international treaties require an occupying authority to maintain records of civilian casualties (including deaths that are a consequence of both combat and war-related privations), the U.S. attempts no ongoing accounting of civilian casualties due to Coalition military action.

In any case, as the researchers at Iraq Body Count emphasize, their figure of documented deaths is undoubtedly low as an overall estimate. In October 2004, the British medical journal The Lancet released the results of an on-the-ground statistical study – still almost completely ignored or dismissed in mainstream U.S. media – of "excess" Iraqi civilian deaths since the March 2003 U.S. invasion. Excluding deaths from the October U.S. assault of Fallujah – because the casualty rate there was so much higher than the rest of the country – the Lancet study produced an estimate of roughly 100,000 civilian casualties through last fall. Since the estimate was by definition imprecise, those very few U.S. media sources that mentioned it at all tended to dismiss the figure as outlandish.

In a recent interview for Pacifica Radio's Democracy Now!, Les Roberts, lead researcher on the Lancet study and an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, described the study's standard statistical methodology and the strength of its conclusions. "We're going to set that Fallujah number aside," Roberts recalled of their methods, "and report that we think in all of those other neighborhoods, essentially, outside of Anbar Province [Fallujah], we think 100,000 are dead. And we're only 90% sure it's more than 44,000. So there's a distribution around that, and it's possible it could have been 90[,000], and it's possible it could have been 110[,000]. But we said, well, when you consider then Anbar Province as well, the chances that it's under 100,000 are very, very low."

The study appeared more than a year ago. There has been no direct follow-up, but Roberts points out that the civilian casualty rate per day, as documented by IBC and other sources, has risen since that time. Given the president's recent estimate – apparently a very low estimate – there should be ample reason for U.S. reporters to pursue the story. As Roberts noted, however, "I'm even more struck that here, a year after our study came out, the first time the president has been asked about this was not by a reporter, but by someone from the public, when he took a question."

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