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Iraq casualty figures open up new battleground

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 13, 2006


From the moment the Iraq war began, the question of who is suffering and in what numbers has been a hotly contested battleground for supporters and opponents of the US decision to invade. Each side has sought to score moral points for their cause by pointing to an alleviation, or growth, in Iraqi suffering.

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It's not surprising that a finding this week that 601,000 Iraqis have been killed as a result of the war is controversial. The figure, published in The Lancet, a British medical journal, is 10 times higher than previous estimates. "Not credible,'' President Bush said succinctly following its release Wednesday. "Exceeds reality in an unreasonable way,'' was the assessment of an Iraqi government spokesman.

There is no doubt that Iraq is now an extremely violent place, as Baghdad's official September murder toll of 2,667 makes clear.

But why are the number of Iraqi deaths so difficult to pin down? The short answer is that much of the country is too dangerous for researchers or government officials to travel in search of accurate statistics. The best tally would come from counting every death certificate issued in the country in the three years before and three years since the invasion. But there is no central reporting mechanism for this in the country.

So instead, the researchers, backed up by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, relied on the same polling methodology that is used to measure voter preferences or what their favorite TV shows are.

"I loved when President Bush said 'their methodology has been pretty well discredited,' " says Richard Garfield, a public health professor at Columbia University who works closely with a number of the authors of the report. "That's exactly wrong. There is no discrediting of this methodology. I don't think there's anyone who's been involved in mortality research who thinks there's a better way to do it in unsecured areas. I have never heard of any argument in this field that says there's a better way to do it."

Gilbert Burnham, lead author of the paper and a public health professor at Johns Hopkins, adds, "There are several ways of counting, one is simply counting the number of bodies that come to the morgue or reports from hospitals or in newspapers. The problem is those numbers may be valid from the site they're collected from but from nowhere else. So if you want to look at numbers that affect population as a whole, the best way is to do surveys."

The survey relied on face to face questions carried out by Iraqi researchers with members of 2,000 Iraqi families, geographically distributed to best reflect Iraq's demographics. The authors extrapolated from this number that the mortality rate per 1,000 Iraqis was 5.5 in the years immediately before the invasion, and has averaged 13.3 since. That yielded the number of 601,000 murdered and an additional 54,000 who have died of natural causes, likely due to the declining quality of healthcare.