Juan Cole: Why it's believable that more than 600,000 Iraqis have died in the war
[T]he big news is a big new Johns Hopkins study published in The Lancet that suggests that the US misadventure in Iraq is responsible for setting off the killing of twice as many civilians as Saddam managed to polish off in 25 years.
A careful Johns Hopkins study has estimated that between 420,000 and 790,000 Iraqis have died as a result of war and political violence since the beginning of the US invasion in March, 2003.
Interesting conclusions are that we are wrong to focus so much on suicide car bombings. The real action is just shooting enemies down with bullets. Only 30 percent of the deaths have been caused by the US military, and that percentage has declined this year because of the sectarian war.
And, folks, this is a major civil war, with something close to 200,000 dying every year.
I once warned that a precipitate US withdrawal could result in a million dead a la Cambodia or Afghanistan. Little did I know that the conditions created by the US invasion and occupation have all along been driving toward that number anyway!
This study is going to have a hard ride. In part it is because many of us in the information business are not statistically literate enough to judge the sampling techniques. Many will tend to dismiss the findings as implausible without a full appreciation of how low the margin of error is this time. Second, it is a projection, and all projections are subject to possible error, and journalists, being hardnosed people, are wary of them.
The New York Times report has already made a serious error, saying that deaths in the Saddam period were covered up. The families interviewed knew whether their loved ones were disappearing in 2001 and 2002 and had no reason to cover it up if they were. The survey established the baseline with a contemporary questionnaire. It wasn't depending on Iraqi government statistics.
Another reason for the hard ride is that the Republican Party and a significant fraction of the business elite in this country is very invested in the Iraq War, and they will try to discredit the study. Can you imagine the profits being made by the military-industrial complex on all this? Do they really want the US public to know the truth about what the weapons they produce have done to Iraqis? When you see someone waxing cynical about the study, ask yourself: Does this person know what a chi square is? And, who does this person work for, really?
Then Anthony Cordesmann told AP that the timing and content of the study were political. But is he saying that 1800 households from all over Iraq conspired to lie to Johns Hopkins University researchers for the purpose of defeating Republicans in US elections this November? Does that make any sense? And, if Cordesmann has evidence that the authors and editor set their timetable for completion and publication according to the US political calendar, he should provide it. If he cannot, he should retract.
Ironically enough, the same journalists who will question this study will accept without query the estimates for deaths in Darfur, e.g., which are generated by exactly the same techniques, and which are almost certainly not as solid.
The study concludes that an average of 470 Iraqis per day have likely died as a result of political violence since March 19, 2003, though the number could be as low as 350 per day if the margin of error skewed to the low side. United Nations estimates based on figures from Iraqi morgues are more like 100 per day.
I follow the violence in Iraq carefully and daily, and I find the results plausible.
First of all, Iraqi Muslims don't believe in embalming or open casket funerals days later. They believe that the body should be buried by sunset the day of death, in a plain wooden box. So there is no reason to expect them to take the body to the morgue. Although there are benefits to registering with the government for a death certificate, there are also disadvantages. Many families who have had someone killed believe that the government or the Americans were involved, and will have wanted to avoid drawing further attention to themselves by filling out state forms and giving their address.
Personally, I believe very large numbers of Iraqi families quietly bury their dead without telling the government of all people anything about it. Another large number of those killed is dumped in the Tigris river by their killers. A fisherman on the Tigris looking for lunch recently caught the corpse of a woman. The only remarkable thing about it is that he let it be known to the newspapers. I'm sure the Tigris fishermen throw back unwanted corpses every day.
Not to mention that for substantial periods of time since 2003 it has been dangerous in about half the country just to move around, much less to move around with dead bodies.
There is heavy fighting almost every day at Ramadi in al-Anbar province, among guerrillas, townspeople, tribes, Marines and Iraqi police and army. We almost never get a report of these skirmishes and we almost never are told about Iraqi casualties in Ramadi. Does 1 person a day die there of political violence? Is it more like 4? 10? What about Samarra? Tikrit? No one is saying. Since they aren't, on what basis do we say that the Lancet study is impossible?
There are about 90 major towns and cities in Iraq. If we subtract Baghdad, where about 100 a day die, that still leaves 89. If an average of 4 or so are killed in each of those 89, then the study's results are correct. Of course, 4 is an average. Cities in areas dominated by the guerrilla movement will have more than 4 killed daily, sleepy Kurdish towns will have no one killed.
If 470 were dying every day, what would that look like?
West Baghdad is roughly 10% of the Iraqi population. It is certainly generating 47 dead a day. Same for Sadr City, same proportions. So to argue against the study you have to assume that Baquba, Hilla, Kirkuk, Kut, Amara, Samarra, etc., are not producing deaths at the same rate as the two halves of Baghad. But it is perfectly plausible that rough places like Kut and Amara, with their displaced Marsh Arab populations, are keeping up their end. Four dead a day in Kut or Amara at the hands of militiamen or politicized tribesmen? Is that really hard to believe? Have you been reading this column the last three years?
Or let's take the city of Basra, which is also roughly 10% of the Iraqi population. Proportionally speaking, you'd expect on the order of 40 persons to be dying of political violence there every day. We don't see 40 persons from Basra reported dead in the wire services on a daily basis.
But last May, the government authorities in Basra came out and admitted that security had collapsed in the city and that for the previous month, one person had been assassinated every hour. Now, that is 24 dead a day, just from political assassination. Apparently these persons were being killed in faction fighting among Shiite militias and Marsh Arab tribes. We never saw any of those 24 deaths a day reported in the Western press. And we never see any deaths from Basra reported in the wire services on a daily basis even now. Has security improved since May? No one seems even to be reporting on it, yes or no.
So if 24 Iraqis can be shot down every day in Basra for a month (or for many months?) and no one notices, the Lancet results are perfectly plausible.
The abstract for the study says:
' Methods: Between May and July 2006 a national cluster survey was conducted in Iraq to assess deaths occurring during the period from January 1, 2002, through the time of survey in 2006. Information on deaths from 1,849 households containing 12,801 persons was collected. This survey followed a similar but smaller survey conducted in Iraq in 2004. Both surveys used standard methods for estimating deaths in conflict situations, using population-based methods.
Key Findings: Death rates were 5.5/1000/year pre-invasion, and overall, 13.2/1000/year for the 40 months post-invasion. We estimate that through July 2006, there have been 654,965 ?excess deaths??fatalities above the pre-invasion death rate?in Iraq as a consequence of the war. Of post-invasion deaths, 601,027 were due to violent causes. Non-violent deaths rose above the pre-invasion level only in 2006. Since March 2003, an additional 2.5% of Iraq?s population have died above what would have occurred without conflict.
The proportion of deaths ascribed to coalition forces has diminished in 2006, though the actual numbers have increased each year. Gunfire remains the most common reason for death, though deaths from car bombing have increased from 2005. Those killed are predominantly males aged 15-44 years. '
More on the techniques from the text:
' The surveyors from the School of Medicine of Al Mustansiria University in Baghdad conducted a national survey between May and July 2006. In this survey, sites were collected according to the population size and the geographic distribution in Iraq. The survey included 16 of the 18 governates in Iraq, with larger population areas having more sample sites. The sites were selected entirely at random, so all households had an equal chance of being included. The survey used a standard cluster survey method, which is a recommended method for measuring deaths in conflict situations. The survey team visited 50 randomly selected sites in Iraq, and at each site interviewed 40 households about deaths which had occurred from January 1, 2002, until the date of the interview in July 2006. We selected this time frame to compare results with our previous
Human Cost of Iraq War survey, which covered the period between January 2002 and September 2004. In all, information was collected from 1,849 households completing the survey, containing 12,801 persons.
This sample size was selected to be able to statistically detect death rates with 95% probability of obtaining the correct result. When the preliminary results were reviewed, it was apparent three clusters were misattributed. These were dropped from the data for analysis, giving a final total of 47 clusters, which are the basis of this study. '
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DeWayne Edward Benson - 10/23/2006
I have over the few recent years stopped believing that Iraq is experiencing a civil war, believing instead they find themselves forced into revenge killing the result of a Pentagon 'Salvadore Option'.
There is no doubt that the many militia's or unk- Secret Police "popping-up" came from somewhere, and best guess points to the "Police" trained using $3-Billion CIA funds compliment of US taxpayers.
This apparently does not count similar operations by Britian and (other) un-named nations.
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