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October 14, 2006

Excess Death in Iraq

by Dahr Jamail

It is the single most important statistic regarding the illegal US invasion and occupation of Iraq. How many Iraqis have been killed?


655,000 Iraqis killed as a result of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq.

I have worked for eight months in Iraq as a journalist, witnessing the carnage on a daily basis, visiting the morgues with bodies and body parts piled into them, meeting family after family who had lost a loved one, or more ... Finally, we get an accurate figure that shows how immense the scale of the long drawn carnage really is.

The first Lancet Report, published on October 29, 2004, reported that there were 100,000 "excess" Iraqi deaths as the result of the US invasion and occupation. (Excess deaths are the difference between pre-invasion and post-invasion mortality rates.) Whenever I have given public presentations about the occupation, I have invariably found myself in a difficult position due to the lack of a more realistic and recent figure I can cite, knowing full well that the number was grossly higher than 100,000.

The least I could do was mention that Les Roberts, one of the authors of that report, is known to have said this past February that the number of Iraqi casualties could be over 300,000. And now, we know it is far higher, which merely confirms what most Iraqis already know.

In the context of the horror stories that have reached us over the three-plus years of the occupation, this latest figure is not nearly as shocking as when the first Lancet report was published in October of 2004. It has been abundantly clear since then that the number of Iraqis being killed by and because of the occupation has continued to increase exponentially.

The recent survey, like the first one, was conducted by Iraqi physicians and overseen by epidemiologists at Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health. The findings are based on interviews with a random sampling of households from across Iraq. This survey yielded the same estimate of deaths immediately following the occupation, as the first survey. It also found that 30% of the reported deaths are caused by the occupation forces.

This study is the only one, other than the first study published in The Lancet, that calculates mortality in Iraq using scientific methods. It is a technique of "cluster sampling" also used to estimate mortality caused by famines and after natural disasters.

The 2004 survey came under fire from pro-war critics and from the supposedly antiwar group Iraq Body Count (IBC) which currently claims a ridiculously low figure between 44,000 and 49,000 dead Iraqis. In the past, the figure generated by IBC has been quoted by George W. Bush.

The controversial results of the first survey were backed by Bradley Woodruff, a medical epidemiologist at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who was quoted in the Chronicle of Higher Education on January 27, 2005: "Les [Les Roberts, co-author of the first survey] has used, and consistently uses, the best possible methodology ... Indeed, the United Nations and the State Department have cited mortality numbers compiled by Mr. Roberts on previous conflicts as fact – and have acted on those results. [He] has studied mortality caused by war since 1992, having done surveys in locations including Bosnia, Congo, and Rwanda. His three surveys in Congo for the International Rescue Committee, a nongovernmental humanitarian organization, in which he used methods akin to those of his Iraq study, received a great deal of attention. 'Tony Blair and Colin Powell have quoted those results time and time again without any question as to the precision or validity,' he added."

Further underscoring the validity and authenticity of the survey methodology are two important facts: first, that the leg work has been conducted by eight Iraqi doctors and second, that the recent survey came up with the same estimate for immediate post-invasion deaths as the previous survey. Additionally, the figures are backed by official evidence as the greater majority of deaths were substantiated by death certificates.

Ronald Waldman, an epidemiologist at Columbia University who worked at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention for several years, said that the survey method is "tried and true," and that "this is the best estimate of mortality we have." His view was backed by Sarah Leah Whitson at the Human Rights Watch in New York, who testified, "We have no reason to question the findings or the accuracy."

Here it is worth recording that the survey's estimate of Iraq's pre-invasion death rate, which was used as the baseline of the survey, was roughly the same as the one used by both the CIA and the US Census Bureau.

As in the instance of the first survey, this study found that the actual number of dead Iraqis could in fact be higher. The fact that this study tabulated "excess deaths" implies that these people would still be alive if the US had not invaded their country.

While the staggeringly high number of the dead may shock some, for others who have kept track of facts it is no great wonder that surveyors have found a steady increase in Iraqi mortality since the invasion and a steeper increase in the last year. This alarmingly reflects the worsening violence which even the US military, the news media and civilian groups have been forced to admit.

Most of what we have heard reported, prior to this survey, had been deaths in Baghdad, with headlines like "50 Bodies Found in Baghdad" and "Baghdad Morgue Reporting 100 Bodies per Day." They are stories that have failed to take into account the rest of the country, although Baghdad is roughly 20% of the total population of Iraq. What has been happening in the rest of the country is a question that the latest survey answers: that there are approximately 500 unexpected violent deaths every single day throughout Iraq.

The survey found that 87% of the deaths had occurred during the occupation rather than during the initial invasion, and that 31% of them were a consequence of attacks and air strikes by the coalition forces.

It was no surprise that Mr. Bush dismissed the findings of the study. He did not consider the report credible and said that the methodology used was "pretty well discredited." I'm sure that the feeble-minded Mr. Bush took a very close look at the methodology used in the study.

Last December, Bush claimed that 30,000 Iraqis had died as the result of the invasion and occupation. When reporters asked him if he still stood by his estimate, he said he stood by the figure that "a lot" of innocent people have died in the conflict.

One of my contacts in Iraq, a man who works with several Iraqi NGOs that monitor human rights abuses, deaths, detentions and other violations of international law, was furious when I asked him how he felt about IBC's attack on the outcome of the first Lancet Report. I present his outburst here:

"This is a mayday call to all colleagues around the world to STOP writing about the Iraqi issue without having enough information from reliable sources. People are getting killed here and the country is virtually dying and it is not so human to rob the dead! IBC supposedly worked to correct the number of Iraqis killed because of the US occupation of Iraq. All I saw in this violent attack upon the Lancet was a harsh offensive that adds the killing of truth to whatever number of killings that actually took place by gunfire and bombs."

Salih Al-Jabiri is a 55-year-old human rights activist in Baghdad. Jabiri, commenting on the figure offered by IBC at that time of roughly 30,000 dead Iraqis, the figure which was infamously quoted by Mr. Bush, said, "What difference does it make whether the number is 30,000 or 200,000 for God's sake? It is people's lives you are counting here, not farm chickens! Do you people mean we should be happy to believe US statistics of ONLY 30,000? But we are not happy with this insultingly low number, when all of us know the true number is so much higher!"

My aforementioned contact added more recently:

"Whatever the numbers the crime is still big enough to be condemned by all those who claim to be human beings. To our colleagues at IBC and those others who think the way they do, we say, be human enough to condemn the crimes of the occupation in Iraq or do not say you are humans."

For over a year now many Iraqis have been referring to what is happening in their country as genocide. With over 500 Iraqis being killed every single day as a direct result of the occupation, it is difficult to argue with them.

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  • Dahr Jamail is the Baghdad correspondent for The NewStandard. Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, Dahr writes about the effects of the US occupation on the people of Iraq, since the mainstream media in the US has in large part, he believes, failed to do so.

    To find out more about Dahr's coverage of Iraq, visit Dahr's support pages.

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