Iraq’s casualty figures: A matter of contention

Home  /  Uncategorized  /  Current Page

Last week the pentagon released its tally of Iraqis who have been killed in violence that took place between the dates of January 2004 and August of 2008. Their estimate of around 77,000 being killed is only the latest in a number of casualty counts over the past few years. Among these various reports are great disparities.

As the New york Times reports,

The American data tallied 76,939 Iraqi security service members and civilians killed and 121,649 wounded between January 2004 and August 2008. The count shows that 3,952 American and other international troops were killed over the same period.

Iraq’s Ministry of Human Rights has compiled a figure for roughly the same time period that is 10,000 more then the Pentagon’s tally.  When asked to comment on the U.S. tally, the ministry declined to give an answer to reporters.

These varied numbers highlight that calculating deaths in Iraq can be a complicated ordeal, which may often turn political.  For instance figures often do not contain the number of militants/insurgents who have been killed.   In Afghanistan, another war in which insurgents figure into the equation, the U.S. military stopped releasing the death tolls of insurgents in 2009,  citing that it was “irrelevant.”  In this most recent tally of casualties in Iraq, there has been no mention from the Pentagon as to who or what the count may leave out.

Perhaps the most politicized and critiqued studies of Iraq’s war casualties have resulted from what is called “Conflict Epidemiology.”  Such reports have been released on Iraq since 2004 by various different Non-Governmental-Organizations.  The basic premise is that a team of scientists go into a conflict zone and conduct surveys at random points on the map, and using scientific methods, determine casualty figures.   This new way of conducting casualty tallies, as opposed to relying on government reports fed to journalists, was successful, and even more importantly, rather reliable in it’s tallies of war dead.  One of the first places that this new method was tested was in 1999 in the Democratic Republic of Congo, whose civil war was ravaging the countryside.  The scientists figures greatly outnumbered anything that had been released before.  Where many had estimated that around 50,000 had died, these new figures pushed towards as many as 1.7 million deaths.  These numbers even pushed governments into action in the DRC, including the the U.S., who greatly increased it’s aid to the country.

When it came to this Iraq study, which was was conducted in 2004, the politics of the day largely dismissed the results.  In it’s estimate, the scientists came back with numbers stating that around 100,000 Iraqis had died from violence.  This was much higher than any casualty study released before.   Mother Jones, whose report on this controversy ran in 2008, cites that the study

dwarfed the figure from the widely cited website Iraq Body Count, which had tallied no more than 19,061 deaths by scouring press reports and official documents. The Iraqi government’s numbers were also much lower.

Because of the large discrepancy, it was labeled misleading and scientifically flawed.  The White House, and even President George Bush himself dismissed the report completely.  But, Mother Jones also pointed out that:

Two years later(as of 2008), the Iraq study remains mired in controversy. But other recent findings suggest that Roberts and Burnham(those who conducted the study) were on the right track. In the summer of 2006, the World Health Organization conducted a large family health survey along with Iraq’s Ministry of Health, interviewing about five times as many people as Roberts and Burnham had, and in a more distributed fashion. In August, Mohamed Ali, a WHO statistician, reported his preliminary results to colleagues at a Denver statistics conference: Nearly 397,000 Iraqis had died because of the war as of July 2006.

This count, 397,000, from 2006 no less, a year in which Iraq’s sectarian violence was increasing, still vastly outnumbers anything that is regarded or accepted as close to the real estimate today.  Other reports released since have included even higher death tolls.  However, the highest estimate that people seem comfortable with citing are those of Iraq Body Count, which estimates that between 98,380 – 107,369 have died.

One thing is certain, with all these different numbers, and the almost as many opinions associated with them, it is likely that we will never fully know the full numerical toll that this war has had on Iraqis.  Yet we have and will continue see the legacy of these deaths affect Iraq, the United States, and the greater Middle East for generations to come.

Iraq Deaths from war are tallied by Pentagon – New York Times

The Iraq Math War – Mother Jones


Comments

  1. Sharon Forsyth says:

    The techniques used by Roberts and Burnham, cluster sample surveys, are the standard for assessing mortality in complex emergencies, and their stats are the most credible, imo. Les Roberts in one of my heroes, and I wish more young people knew about him.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Les_Roberts_(epidemiologist)

Leave a Reply

More from TLP