Letters home from Eastern Canada…

A report by – Heather Spoonheim

With estimates for civilian casualties in Iraq ranging from one hundred thousand to one million, one must wonder – what the hell is going on? For the most part, it seems, the parties producing these numbers are making no attempts whatsoever to mislead anyone. The reason such a wide discrepancy exists between the highest and lowest numbers being reported is that the statistic is simply not a straight forward matter at all.

In truth, only a window to an alternate reality could provide a truly objective evaluation of the civilian toll. If one could accurately determine civilian deaths in Iraq from that alternate reality and then compare those to the civilian deaths in the Iraq of our reality, the difference would provide a very objective basis for evaluation.

In lieu of such a window, however, one is left grasping for rather elusive evidence. Essentially, the best method left available to the statistician is determining and comparing mortality rates for before and after the invasion/occupation. In a culture that demands a body be in the ground in short order, however, and in an environment where the infrastructure required to establish firm records has been compromised, sourcing such statistics is difficult, at best.

One source, and a very fortunate one to have, is Iraq Body Count (IBC). Initially set up before the invasion of Iraq began, IBC has kept very meticulous records of confirmed civilian war/violence related fatalities throughout the conflict and occupation. Their record set is somewhat limited, however, since fatalities that are not reported by media sources available in English are not recorded by IBC. Even so, IBC fatality statistics must be highly regarded as setting a very reliable minimum number of civilian fatalities resulting from the Iraq war/occupation.

Substantiation of IBC’s numbers can be found in the Global Terrorism Database (GTD). The GTD is an extensive database of over 87,000 terrorist ‘events’ spanning the years 1970 through 2008. A query of the GTD for events that resulted in fatalities in Iraq from 2003 through 2008 provides a record set that seems to correlate with the IBC statement of civilian deaths attributable to suicide attacks and vehicle bombs over that same period. IBC reports those numbers as deaths per day for each year, and the table below compares those numbers with GTD results for those years divided by 365.

Year IBC/Day GTD/Day
2003 1.4 1.4
2004 5.2 7.4
2005 10.0 12.2
2006 16.0 12.6
2007 21.0 18.1
2008 10.0 7.7

It should be noted that the GTD records only events considered to be acts of terrorism. It is unlikely that acts of inter-sectarian violence are often classified as terrorist events, resulting in the GTD not recording many fatalities that are recorded by IBC. Furthermore, given that IBC only records civilian fatalities, the IBC does not record fatalities of military personnel listed in the GTD. Considering these differences in methodology, it is rather notable that the resulting numbers from each database correlate so tightly. The only year for which the GTD records more fatalities than IBC is 2004, although it might be assumed that in the early months following the invasion there were many more military than civilian targets, or that the military has been more capable than the general public in adapting defenses to suicide attacks and vehicle bombs.

The IBC firmly establishes the minimum number of violent civilian fatalities that have occurred during the Iraq war/occupation, and it is also an invaluable tool for determining an expected distribution of such fatalities. The full total of excess civilian deaths of the Iraq war/occupation, however, cannot be established with such certainty.

The methodology for determining total excess civilian deaths requires the use of well designed interviews of members of randomly selected clusters of households and established practices of interpreting the resulting data. To date there are only two peer reviewed studies that have attempted this task – a rather daunting one considering the security issues faced by doing door to door surveys in an unstable country, with at least one survey taker actually becoming a statistic himself.

One of those peer reviewed studies, published in the Lancet, estimated that there were over 600,000 excess violent civilian deaths from the invasion/occupation by June of 2006. The other peer reviewed study published in the New England Journal of Medicine by the Iraq Family Health Survey (IFHS) estimated that there were approximately 150,000 excess violent civilian deaths during the same period. By comparison, IBC reported approximately 100,000 confirmed violent civilian deaths being accumulated by October of 2006.

Given the 100,000 confirmed deaths recorded by IBC, one is left to wonder how the 600,000 estimate reported in the Lancet could vary so greatly from the 150,000 estimate reported by the IFHS. There have been wide ranging criticisms of both reports that go well beyond the scope of this short review. The criticisms of the Lancet report, however, seem to be made from incredulity and focus mostly on the sample sizes and true randomness of distribution. The criticisms of the IFHS report, on the other hand, seem to center on the potential for underreporting of violent causes of death due to the involvement of government affiliated survey takers and a ministry controlled by Moktada al Sadr.

As the death toll in Iraq continues to accumulate, those who profit from sensational headlines tend to gravitate towards seven figure casualty estimates. Staunchly conservative analysts, conversely, gravitate towards the barely six figure number of confirmed fatalities reported by IBC. The truth of the matter, however, would seem to lay somewhere in between. Even assuming a rather moderate figure of 250,000 civilian casualties of the Iraq war and occupation to date, it is sobering to realize that the civilian cost of just that one theatre of battle in the ‘War on Terror’ is greater than the total worldwide death toll from terrorism during the entire lifetime of this writer, and yet the occupation and violence are far from over.

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