The Iraq war death toll? At least 162,000 and counting

Most concerning in a new report's analysis of the Iraq war death toll is evidence of the high level of violence that's persisted since the civil war ended.

Saad Shalash/Reuters
Iraqi soldiers search a car and its occupants at a checkpoint in Baghdad on December 5.

A report released today by Iraq Body Count -- an anti-war group that compiles statistics on confirmed deaths from violence in Iraq -- estimated that the death toll from the start of the Iraq war to the end of 2011 was approximately 162,000 people.

That figure includes US and other foreign troops, Iraqi government forces, members of militias both local and foreign, and civilians. The group found that a minimum of 114,212 civilians have been killed in the Iraq war to date.

The group's methodology almost guarantees an under-count of civilian deaths for the arc of the war, since it records only deaths reported in the press and in the US military logs leaked last year by Wikileaks.

But as a measure of trends in violence, their work has provided a useful snapshot of the toll in Iraq since the war began. This year's report both underscores the good news from Iraq -- that violence has collapsed from its 2006-2007 peak -- while also raising questions about persistent, albiet low-levels in violence, that are now a kind of background radiation to the country's political scene.

Since the full US withdrawal in December, sectarian political tensions have been on the rise, with Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki working to oust Sunni rivals from his government. His Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi was alleged to be behind a death squad a few days after the US pullout, and has since fled his arrest warrant to autonomous Kurdistan. Mr. Hashemi has dismissed the charge as politically motivated.

It remains possible that the departure of the US from the domestic political scene will lead to an end to the kinds of violence that marred 2011, but that doesn't seem likely as political rivalry in the country heats up and at least some Iraqi groups stake out maximalist positions. On New Years Eve, the Badr Organization -- a key Shiite backer of Mr. Maliki's ruling coalition which has its own armed wing -- raised banners praising deceased former Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei in the city of Basra. That will not have reassured Iraq's Sunni Arabs. 

Violent deaths in the IBC data base for 2011 were virtually unchanged from 2010, with 4,064 civilians killed compared to 4,045 the year before. The civilian toll for 2009 was 4,713.

Due to the way the database is compiled, determining responsibility for most killings is impossible. From the killings where a perpetrator was clear, the IBC says anti-government attacks accounted for 1,172 civilian deaths in 2011 (from 888), Iraqi security forces accounted for 140 (up from 96) and US troops were responsible for 19 civilian killings in 2011 (down from 32 in 2010).

Since the start of the war, the group found that "60,024 of the civilian dead were reported killed by small arms gunfire; 37,840 by explosive weapons (such as IEDs, suicide attacks, and aerial bombardment); and 5,648 by airstrikes (including cannon-fire, bombs and missiles)." The IBC said at least 9,019 Iraqi police have been killed since 2003, "by far the largest toll of any professional group." The group said that "14,705 (13%) of all documented civilian deaths were reported as being directly caused by the US-led coalition."

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