Half a million dead Iraqis

IssueNovember 2013
News by Gabriel Carlyle

The invasion and occupation of Iraq resulted in approximately half a million war-related deaths during the eight-year period March 2003 – June 2011, according to the results of a peer-reviewed household survey* published in the journal PLOS Medicine (PLOS stands for ‘Public Library of Science’).
The paper estimates that ‘more than 60% of excess deaths were directly attributable to violence, with the rest associated with the collapse of infrastructure and other indirect, but war-related causes.’

The conclusions are based on a survey of 2,000 randomly-selected households in 100 clusters throughout Iraq, conducted between May and July 2011.

Based on this data, the researchers – public health experts from three North American universities (Johns Hopkins University, Simon Fraser University and the University of Washington) as well as members of Iraq’s ministry of health – calculated a war-time crude death rate in Iraq of 4.55 deaths per 1,000 person-years (PY), more than 50 percent higher than the pre-war rate (2.89 per 1,000 PY) for the 26-month period preceding the war. They then combined these rates with estimates of Iraq’s annual population compiled by the UN Population Division, to produce an estimate of 405,000 excess deaths between 1 March 2003 and 30 June 2011 (the invasion began on 18 March 2003).

In an attempt to take into account the large number of Iraqis who have fled the country as refugees since 2003 (and who were therefore not around to be questioned during the survey), the authors also calculated a ‘migration adjustment’, adding an additional 56,000 excess deaths for a total of 461,000 excess deaths.

Of the 75 war-related violent deaths reported in the household survey, US-led coalition forces were responsible for the largest proportion (35 percent), followed by militias (32 percent), unknown (21 percent) and criminals (11 percent). Gunshots were identified as the cause of 63 percent of the 75 deaths, compared with 12 percent caused by car bombs and 7 percent by airstrikes. Moreover, ‘coalition forces were reportedly responsible for killing the most women’.

The five previous studies of war-related deaths in Iraq covered various periods between 2003 and 2008, producing a wide range of estimates, ranging from 100,000 deaths (for the period March 2003 – September 2004) to over 1 million (for the period through to September 2008). All had their methodologies criticised.

Lancet queries
No study was more controversial than the 2006 Lancet survey which concluded that there had been over 650,000 war-related deaths up to June 2006. However, when it emerged that the names of many of the respondents in this survey had been recorded – contrary to the survey’s methodology and assurances given to those questioned** – even some of its staunchest supporters were forced to conclude that its results could no longer be trusted on the grounds that it was impossible to know which aspects of the study had been carried out as stated.

Though the 2013 paper’s authors write that they have ‘modified and improved their methodology in response to critiques of earlier surveys’, they also acknowledge the ‘substantial uncertainties’ associated with the new estimates. In particular, they cite the small sample size, problems associated with asking people to recall things that happened up to 10 years earlier (so-called ‘recall bias’) and their reliance on old (1987) census data, projections from which were used in making the sample selection.

Though they bear primary responsibility for the (still ongoing) carnage, Washington and London will doubtless dismiss the latest study as inadequate. However, their lack of interest in compiling a credible death record of their own speaks volumes.

Topics: Iraq