News Release

Iraqi Fatalities: Truth and Consequences


Last week at a news conference, President Bush said that a new study on deaths in Iraq is “not credible.” The White House and Pentagon have cited much lower figures without clear documentation.

Co-author of the study “Mortality after the 2003 Invasion of Iraq: A Cross-Sectional Cluster Sample Survey” published last week in The Lancet, Roberts was with Johns Hopkins University when he co-authored the study but has just taken a post at Columbia University. The study is available at The Lancet [PDF].

Roberts said today: “We estimate that there have been 655,000 excess deaths since the invasion of Iraq, and we’re 95 percent sure it’s between about 400,000 and 950,000. We estimate that 600,000 were violent deaths. We found violence from coalition forces continuing to increase but is becoming a smaller share of the cause of death. Our method was to sample 47 random clusters in 16 governorates, with every cluster consisting of 40 households. Information on deaths before the invasion from these households was gathered so we could establish a baseline. … In terms of the reaction from our governmental and military leaders: at a moment when we as a society should be showing contrition, downplaying the death toll seems particularly imprudent.”

Associate professor of international health at Boston University School of Public Heath, Bolton said today: “This study uses the standard methodology that we use all over the world. Actually, what they did was superior because at the end of the interview process, they asked for a death certificate 87 percent of the time and the interviewees were able to produce it 92 percent of the time. We normally don’t have that kind of verification.”

Ball is a co-author of the book State Violence in Guatemala, 1960-1996, and wrote the chapter “On the Quantification of Horror: Field Notes on Statistical Analysis of Human Rights Violations” in the book “Repression and Mobilization.” Questioned about the disparity between the Lancet study and figures from media reports and efforts like, Ball said: “I’ve found a similar disparity between reported deaths and likely deaths in other conflicts that I’ve studied in Guatemala, Kosovo, Peru and Timor-Leste. Methods such as media reports typically capture violence well when it is moderate, but when it really increases, they miss a great deal. There are a series of biases regarding what gets reported — we get very good reports about journalists killed, but not rural peasants; we know about big landowners, but not grassroots union organizers.”

Ball is director of the human rights program at Benetech, a firm that uses technology for social good, and works extensively on human rights data analysis.
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Author of the new book Strategic Terror: The Politics and Ethics of Aerial Bombardment, Grosscup is professor of international relations at California State University in Chico. He said today: “President Bush and the Pentagon have deemed as ‘not credible’ a new report claiming around 650,000 Iraqis dead since the start of the U.S. invasion. Neither offer any reason why. The New York Times questions the accuracy of the methodology but fails to note that the researchers have been doing ‘body counts’ for awhile, in the Congo and Sudan among other places, and never have their methodology challenged there. Of course, Africans killing Africans is of little political concern to U.S. politicians.

“But the numbers in the Lancet 2004 report [by the same researchers] — 100,000 dead Iraqi civilians, 79 percent from ‘coalition’ (U.S.) bombing — and the new count are very ‘politically inconvenient’ to an administration bent on proving that victory is close, the insurgency [is] on the run, the Iraqis are better off now than under Saddam and there is no civil war. Both reports also challenge the claim that the U.S. has precision weapons which result in ‘minimal’ civilian deaths to be dismissed as products of the ‘fog of war’ or ‘collateral damage.’ …

“In short, it is not that the Iraqi deaths are unacceptable in human terms — we are always reminded that ‘war is hell.’ It is that they are politically unacceptable, to be summarily dismissed without comment or question. After all, if the president or a general says the numbers are not credible — it must be so.”

For more information, contact at the Institute for Public Accuracy:
Sam Husseini, (202) 347-0020; or David Zupan, (541) 484-9167