The Iraq war casualties: lowballing on the number of the dead

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The invasion of Iraq in 2003 by the United States led coalition was meant to bring democracy in the country as well as destroy weapons of mass destruction. However, the effects of this war has led to more civilians deaths creating more damage than the good it was to bring to the people of Iraq. Most importantly, the total number of the war casualties has been a subject of political debate with reports indicating a heavily skewed observation of the war. Data from sources such as the WikiLeaks, and Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), and the Lancet disagree with the highly-regarded data from the Iraq Body Count (IBC) with the latter accused of lowballing on the war dead. It is arguable which among the sources of data on the Iraq war casualties provides a true view. With IBC relying on passively collected figures, its funding by the US Institute of Peace has been attributed as to the leading factor in under reporting the casualty figures.

While there have been attempts by the US government to minimize the impact of the Iraq war impact following flawed premises for invasion, this analysis will seek to find the accurate casualty figures in a period of 10 years since 2003. It is worth noting that an accurate assessment of the death toll in any war plays a huge role in constructing foreign policy and public opinion in future conflicts.

This study will mainly utilize data from the Lancet report of February 2011 as indicated in Table 1. This data will be compared with other estimates from other sources, more so the IBC.

Table 1.

Source Total casualties between 2003 and 2011
Iraq Body Count Between 103,000 and 112,000
The Lancet Between 390,000 and 940,000
Physicians for Social Responsibility Over 135,000
PLOS Medicine 461,000
WikiLeaks 162,333
Iraq Family Health Survey 151,000

 

IBC has been regarded as the most comprehensive body reporting on the casualties in the Iraq war. Relying on data from over 90 news sources as well as other external sources such as local television reports, news articles and statistics from the morgues, it falls short of the necessity for acquiring original data on the war casualties. In arriving at its conclusions, the PSR report analysed data from a variety of secondary sources such as the IBC and the Lancet reports arguing that the total number of casualties since 2003 was more than 135,000. On the other hand, Lancet which mainly used the extrapolation method and ignoring the standard scientific approach, faced criticism from the US and the British governments as well as other players such as IBC. However, its data which this study mainly relies agrees with those obtained by the PLOS Medicine report that utilized a similar method.

The Lancet study led by renowned scientists from John Hopkins University utilized a representative sample of 1850 Iraq households drawn across the country. This study collected information from 13000 people on the recorded deaths 15 months before the start of the war as well as in 40 months after the commencement of the war. Unlike other studies such as the IBC, the data collected in this study was corroborated by over 90% of death certificates.

Whereas the credibility of each institution tasked with the duty of recording the number of casualties in the Iraq war has often been questioned, the impact of underestimating the actual casualties cannot be ignored. Of grave concern is the reliability of the IBC report by the US and the British governments despite accusations of under reporting the actual figures. According to IBC, the Iraq war casualties between 2003 and 2011 ranges from 103,000 to 112,000. IBC attribute 13% of the civilian deaths to the direct actions of the US led coalition. Small arms gunfire on the other hand have been noted as the greatest cause of civilian deaths with over 60,000 reported cases. While the findings of the IBC only fall short of 13, 000 casualties as reported in the WikiLeaks, the data collection methods utilized by this institution have a bias on underestimating the actual figures.

IBC relies on information from the leading hospitals and morgues as well as from independent counts from independent sources. This has been attributed as the main cause of lowballing in the cases where the dead were buried immediately by the family members as it is the custom in Islam religion. On the other hand, the Lancet project accuses the IBC of underreporting noting that not all cases of civilian casualties is reported in the media.

Among the various sources of casualties’ data in the Iraq war, the Lancet studies seems more credible. By extrapolating the casualties prior to and after the commencement of the war, the Lancet studies noted that with the casualties rising to 13.3 per 1000 people annually, in a population of around 26 million people, the estimated death toll should be 655,000. While this is only an estimate considering the small sample of the population polled, the authors argue that at a 95% confidence level, the actual number of casualties should be between 390,000 and 940,000. Additionally, the authors argued that the likelihood of the casualties to be less than 390,000 during the same period was less than 2.5%. With this approach, having been applied before in other places such as Angola and DRC, it brings to light the concerns of lowballing in the IBC reports.

The Lancet report on the other hand has been criticised of utilizing extrapolation as well as the bias of a small sample. Additionally, critics of this report argued that it was not possible for the eight researchers to hold over 38 interviews every day in 49 days. This study has also been accused of underestimating the actual casualties prior to the war as well as during the earlier months following the invasion. Of great importance, is the failure to account for the high number of citizens who may have fled before and during the war.

Other studies utilizing a similar approach, on the other hand supports the Lancet data attributing high casualties than those reported by the IBC. A study by the Iraq Family Health Survey that utilized a larger population sample and supervised by the World Health Organization estimated the number of casualties to be over 150,000. Whereas this study noted that some of the households could not be accessed due to security concerns, adjustments to compensate for the massive refugee movements were employed.

The PLOS Medicine report of 2013 which also used the same surveying techniques argues that the method though inadequate in accurately counting the war mortalities, provides a better estimate as compared to media reports used by the IBC reports. This study notes that of the 461,000 estimated casualties, over 60% were due to the direct effect of the violence. Additionally, the study attribute over 92200 casualties to the direct actions of the coalition forces.

The Lancet studies have also been proved to clear the doubt on the total impact of the Iraq war with casualties attributed to be higher than those reported by the IBC. It also brings to light the actual impact of war on the human lives. More importantly, the severe consequences in terms of actual war death toll and the public health.

Conclusion

By comparing data from all the sources discussed in this analysis, it is worth noting that the different methods of calculating the war mortalities yield significant differences. The IBC however, has the most skewed data as compared to the other sources. With IBC reporting significantly lower casualties, critics argue that this has been the major reason it is widely quoted in the leading media houses as well as enjoying a support from the US government. The ability to correctly assess the death toll in any war is important in determining the latter’s legacy. Whereas, over reporting and under-reporting on casualties have a negative impact, the ability to conduct credible research should be emphasized.

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  1. Bienaime, P., ‘Are journalists lowballing the number of Iraqi war dead?’ Columbia Journalism Review < http://www.cjr.org/criticism/iraq_body_count.php> 2015, (assessed 12 January 2017)
  2. Burnham G, Lafta R, Doocy S & Roberts L. ‘Mortality After The 2003 Invasion Of Iraq: A Cross-Sectional Cluster Sample Survey’, Lancet, vol. 368, issue 9545, 2006, pp. 1421-1428.
  3. Guilliard, J, Henken, L, Mellenthin, K &… Wagner, J, ‘Body Count: Casualty figures after 10 years of the “war on terror”’, PSR < http://www.psr.org/assets/pdfs/body-count.pdf> 2015, (assessed 12 January 2017).
  4. Hagopian, A., Flaxman, A. D., Takaro, T. K., Esa Al Shatari, S. A., Rajaratnam, J., Becker, S., & … Burnham, G., ‘Mortality in Iraq Associated with the 2003–2011 War and Occupation: Findings from a National Cluster Sample Survey by the University Collaborative Iraq Mortality Study’  Plos Medicine, vol. 10, issue 10, 2013, pp. 1-15.
  5. Iraq Body Count, ‘Documented civilian deaths from violence’, <https://www.iraqbodycount.org/database/> 2017, (assessed 12 January 2017).
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