[DEBATE] : (Fwd) Counting Iraqi deaths

Patrick Bond pbond at mail.ngo.za
Thu Feb 15 03:21:39 GMT 2007


The Independent     14 February 2007

Les Roberts: Iraq's death toll is far worse than our leaders admit

The US and Britain have triggered an episode more deadly than the Rwandan

On both sides of the Atlantic, a process of spinning science is preventing a
serious discussion about the state of affairs in Iraq.

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 the baseline.

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 referenced.

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

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 denial.

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

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