New survey of Iraqi death toll: 151,000

Conducted jointly by the Iraqi government and the World Health Organization, its finding is lower than the 600,000 arrived at by John Hopkins University.

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A new study conducted jointly by the Iraqi government and the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 151,000 Iraqis died in the years following the US-led invasion of Iraq. The survey, the latest of many different estimates of Iraqi mortality during the war, is a quarter of the toll calculated by an earlier study by Iraqi and Johns Hopkins University researchers, but much higher than some other estimates by independent groups and US military.

The study suggests that "roughly 9 out of 10 of those deaths were a consequence of U.S. military operations, insurgent attacks and sectarian warfare," reports The Washington Post. In addition, there was a 60 percent rise in nonviolent deaths, including those attributed to disease.

Iraq's population-wide mortality rate nearly doubled, and the death rate from violence increased tenfold after the coalition attack. Men between 15 and 60 were at the greatest risk.

The Post also notes that figures provided last month by Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq, between January 2006 and December 2007, "indicated that some 40,000 civilians had died in the past two years in Iraq."

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The authors of the WHO study, which covers the period between 2003 and 2006, said the new figure could be anywhere "between 104,000 and 223,000 allowing for misreporting," and "points to a massive death toll in the wake of the 2003 invasion and represents only one of the many health and human consequences of an ongoing humanitarian crisis," reports the Guardian.

The survey from the Iraqi Family Health Survey Group was carried out by trained employees of the health ministry who visited 10,860 households – 10 from each of more than 1,000 clusters across the 18 provinces of Iraq. Because of the insecurity, 115 (11%) of the clusters could not be visited – mostly in Anbar and Baghdad – so calculations were made to account for the probable number of deaths in those places. Researchers asked heads of households if there had been any deaths in the two years before or three years after the invasion in 2003.
Account was taken of under-reporting of deaths, which is usual in household surveys, not least because families often move when somebody dies. The survey also allowed for the out-migration of up to 2 million people between March 2003 and June 2006.

The study is the latest of many attempts to "come up with realistic numbers of civilian deaths," reports The New York Times.

The estimates have varied widely. The Iraq Body Count, a nongovernmental group based in Britain that bases its numbers on news media accounts, put the number of civilians dead at 47,668 during the same period of time as the World Health Organization study, the W.H.O. report said. President Bush in the past used a number that was similar to one put forward at the time by the Iraq Body Count.

Though the latest study is the largest in scope yet, and thus more reliable, it ended before "the period of what is believed to be the worst sectarian killings, during the latter half of 2006 and the first eight months of 2007," the Times added.

Researchers involved in the latest study also said any discussion of casualties should be approached with caution, reports The Baltimore Sun.

While arguing that theirs was the best assessment to date, researchers said they were hampered by shifting populations and their inability to enter some violent neighborhoods.
"Assessment of the death toll in conflict situations is extremely difficult and household survey results have to be interpreted with caution," said Mohamed Ali, a World Health Organization statistician and one of the authors. The study will be published in the Jan. 31 edition of The New England Journal of Medicine.

A Pentagon spokesman yesterday appeared to support the new estimate over earlier figures, the Sun added, noting that the earlier Johns Hopkins study had been rejected by the US.

That study, which estimated 600,000 deaths, sparked a debate. Although it provided no estimate of its own, the Pentagon said the Hopkins figure was inflated, while many war opponents said Hopkins provided the best evidence of the war's human toll.
Lester Roberts, an epidemiologist who co-directed the Hopkins study, said he doubted that the new study would cause the public to revise their opinion of the war.
"I think this is advancing the dialogue, and that is good," Roberts said. "For the Iraqi Ministry of Health to say that by June 2006 there were 150,000 deaths is closing the gulf between the Western press version of what has happened and what's been reported by the Middle Eastern press."

In a recent analysis, the National Journal criticized the John Hopkins study for flaws in study design and lack of transparency in the data, and also questioned the neutrality of the study's authors and funders.

The widely differing estimates point to the difficulty of getting information in a time of war. "The true toll may never be known because many deaths go unreported in the chaos that has gripped the country, or the numbers may be tainted by sectarian bias," reports the Associated Press.

The new estimates come as US forces initiated new airstrikes in Baghdad, aimed at Al Qaeda targets, reports the British Broadcasting Corp. "The attack on the Arab Jabour district, said to be a safe haven for al-Qaeda in Iraq, was part of the wider Operation Phantom Phoenix launched on Tuesday. Nine US soldiers have been killed since the start of the operation," the BBC said.

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