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It Doesn’t Add Up

President’s Estimate of Iraqi War Dead Doesn’t Mesh With Hopkins Scientists’ Figures

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 1/4/2006

On Dec. 12 President Bush personally did something that U.S. government officials had refused to do before Oct. 30: He estimated the Iraqi death toll in the war.

“I would say 30,000, more or less, have died as a result of the initial incursion and the ongoing violence against Iraqis,” the president told a Philadelphia questioner in one of his rare (apparently) unscripted public appearances.

While 30,000 Iraqis killed is a comfortable, consensus figure in the U.S. media, it is based on the most conservative—actually, inaccurate—reporting method available. Put simply, only those civilian deaths reported in at least two media sources are counted, according to Iraq Body Count, the nonprofit web site that claims the 30,000 number.

“I think that it was difficult for him, I was surprised he said anything,” says Gilbert Burnham, professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health and an expert at counting civilian deaths in wars and disasters. “It’s difficult for him to cite any other number because all the other numbers are bigger.”

In 2004 Burnham and his Hopkins-based colleague, Les Roberts, used a more accurate and scientifically accepted method of estimating war dead, as reported previously in City Paper (“100,000,” Mobtown Beat, Nov. 17, 2004). It’s called a random household survey, and it established the most widely cited estimates for war deaths in the Congo, Darfur, Sudan, and Aceh, Indonesia, where a tsunami wiped out the coastal population one year ago. In November 2004, U.K. medical journal The Lancet published the result of a one-month survey of Iraqi families, with the number of deaths, causes of deaths, and other details extrapolated to the whole nation.

The figure was 98,000.

The Lancet study was ridiculed in the mainstream press. But, Burnham says, scientists who read the study did not criticize it. “Nobody has argued with us in the scientific community on a scientific basis,” he says. “There has been a lot of criticism that the numbers made people feel uncomfortable. And you ask why, and they say, ‘It’s too high.’”

Actually, the Lancet study’s numbers were conservative. Data from Fallujah, a city the United States had practically wiped off the map, was thrown out because the reported death rate there was so high that if extrapolated to the nation as a whole with the other data it would have tripled the reported total to 300,000.

That was a year ago, before the battles of Mosul, Tal Afar, and Husayba, among many others. Since the survey was finished, the United States and “coalition forces” have dropped thousands (the figures have not been publicly released) of tons of additional bombs on Iraqis. The Lancet study found that most of the deaths in Iraq were caused by bombardment by U.S. aircraft, missiles, and artillery.

Asked if it’s reasonable to estimate, based on his methodology, that the number of Iraqis killed because of the United States invasion is far in excess of 100,000, Burnham says, “I think it would be. But how much higher it would be I don’t know.”

The pair would like to conduct a follow-up survey, and so would their Iraqi collaborators. But right now, Burnham says, it’s too dangerous. “I think there is a very strong feeling of wanting to repeat the survey,” he says. “The discussion has been of how to do it to increase our confidence in the specific results.”

Though all but forgotten in the mainstream press, the Lancet study was not lost on epidemiologists, Burnham says: “The impact of the study has been, in scientific circles, very good, because it has raised awareness of the lack of information that we have about deaths in conflicts.”

Burnham says general media outlets seem to have a selective amnesia when it comes to basic facts about the war and the country itself. “One of the interesting things that Les [Roberts] picked up [is that] Fallujah, before it was attacked, was 300,000 people,” he says. “Now they’re saying in the media soon the full 200,000 will be back.”

Whether the recent figure, with its 100,000 absentees, stems from incomplete data or propaganda, Burnham says he isn’t certain.

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