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How many Iraqis died?

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How many Iraqis died in the US led invasion of 2003 and the subsequent occupation?

Pakistan-born Glasgow-based sociologist, Muhammad Idrees Ahmad, writing in the UAE journal The National on 5 April 2013, provides some answers – see True costs of Iraq War Whitewashed by fuzzy maths, republished the same day by the UK Stop the War Coalition under the headline No more fuzzy maths: how many died in the Bush-Blair war on Iraq?.

The most commonly cited source, the UK-based online initiative Iraq Body Count (IBC), uses a passive surveillance method to estimate what it calls “violent civilian deaths”, relying mainly on media reports, initially only in the English language. Current total: between 111,842 and 122,326.

Commenting on the IBC methodology, Ahmad says:

Distinguishing a civilian from a combatant in an urban war zone is itself a fraught business. But the IBC methodology makes two further assumptions that raise questions: that war kills only by violence, and that the media records every death in every part of the country.

If we accept the first assumption, then we would also have to revise our estimates of history’s other major atrocities. Those who died of exhaustion or starvation during the Nazi death marches cannot be considered casualties of war using IBC criteria since they did not die of violence. One would also have to omit those who died in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising since, by virtue of taking up arms, they forfeited their right to be counted.

War in most cases means collapse of state institutions and health care systems; it means social disintegration, food shortages and lawlessness. It kills by starvation, scarcity, contamination, shock, abandonment – and a host of other causes that don’t involve bullets. There was a four-fold increase in traffic accidents alone in the years following the invasion of Iraq. IBC’s methods make no allowances for such consequences.

The second assumption appears to ignore both Iraqi reality and media practices. No journalist made a commitment to report every death in Iraq. Most were based in politically significant locations. During the most violent period, all but a few were confined to Baghdad’s Green Zone. There is no reason to assume that every violent death, let alone every war-related death, was being reported.

The Iraq Body Count figure is horrifying enough. The real figure for the number of people who died as a result of the invasion is bound to be much higher. Ahmad notes that:

… there are two peer-reviewed epidemiological surveys that give a far more comprehensive accounting of the war’s human cost. A Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Survey published in the Lancet, and the Iraq Public Health Survey published in the New England Journal of Medicine, gave figures of 655,000 and 400,000 excess deaths respectively.

The methodology of these surveys involves a household survey to establish current mortality rates and comparing them with pre-war ones. The difference, extrapolated for the whole population, yields an estimate of the number of people who would still be alive had the war not happened. Both of these surveys were concluded in June 2006, a month before the violence peaked, suggesting the actual toll is even higher.

The Johns Hopkins survey was quickly dismissed by the US and UK Governments, but according to the 27 March 2007 edition of The Guardian a memo by the Ministry of Defence’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Roy Anderson, dated October 13 2006, two days after the report was published, stated (see Ministers were told not to rubbish Iraq deaths study):

The study design is robust and employs methods that are regarded as close to ‘best practice’ in this area, given the difficulties of data collection and verification in the present circumstances in Iraq.

If one accepts the Johns Hopkins numbers or the lower figure from the Iraq Public Health Survey, this cuts away at one of the key justifications proffered by John Howard in his 9 April 2013 speech at the Lowy Institute – relieving the Iraqi population of the consequences of Saddam’s appalling human rights record:

[He] was responsible for up to 100,000 dead in the Anfal campaign of 1988 against the Kurds; his 1991 campaign of reprisals against the Shia claimed 50,000 lives.

The Anfal campaign and the reprisals against the Shia are of course only part of the story. Pierre Tristam, in his About.com Middle East Issues piece Iraq Casualties, 1980-2009: From Saddam Hussein to George Bush summarises a New York Times piece by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist John F. Burns (see How Many People Has Hussein Killed) as follows:

– The largest number of deaths during his reign is attributable to the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988). Iraq claims to have lost 500,000 people during that war.

– The 1990 occupation of Kuwait and the ensuing Gulf War caused 100,000 deaths, by Iraq’s reckoning–probably an exaggeration, but not by much: the 40-day bombardment of Iraq before the three-day ground war, and the massacre of escaping Iraqi troops on the “highway of death” make the estimate more credible than not.

– “Casualties from Iraq’s gulag are harder to estimate,” Burns wrote. “Accounts collected by Western human rights groups from Iraqis and defectors have suggested that the number of those who have ‘disappeared’ into the hands of the secret police, never to be heard from again, could be 200,000.”
Assuming that about 800,000 Iraqis lost their lives in the 23 years of Saddam’s rule, the invading Coalition of the Willing managed to cause deaths attributable to the invasion of a similar order of magnitude in the first three years after the invasion. Add to this the 227,000 excess deaths of Iraqi children due mainly to sanctions, calculated by Dr Richard Garfield of Columbia University for the period 1990 to March 1998, later revised by him to a figure of 350,000 through 2000, (see A Hard Look at Iraq SanctionsThe Nation, 3 December 2001) and the Iraqi people don’t have much to thank us for.

Originally published by AWPR, 15 June, 2013 | 5:03 pm


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