Global Policy Forum

Iraq Death Toll Rivals


By Joshua Holland

September 17, 2007

According to a new study, 1.2 million Iraqis have met violent deaths since the 2003 invasion, the highest estimate of war-related fatalities yet. The study was done by the British polling firm ORB, which conducted face-to-face interviews with a sample of over 1,700 Iraqi adults in 15 of Iraq's 18 provinces. Two provinces -- al-Anbar and Karbala -- were too dangerous to canvas, and officials in a third, Irbil, didn't give the researchers a permit to do their work. The study's margin of error was plus-minus 2.4 percent. Field workers asked residents how many members of their own household had been killed since the invasion. More than one in five respondents said that at least one person in their home had been murdered since March of 2003. One in three Iraqis also said that at least some neighbors "actually living on [their] street" had fled the carnage, with around half of those having left the country. In Baghdad, almost half of those interviewed reported at least one violent death in their household.

Before the study's release, the highest estimate of Iraqi deaths had been around 650,000 in the landmark Johns Hopkins' study published in the Lancet, a highly respected and peer-reviewed British medical journal. Unlike that study, which measured the difference in deaths from all causes during the first three years of the occupation with the mortality rate that existed prior to the invasion, the ORB poll looked only at deaths due to violence. The poll's findings are in line with the rolling estimate maintained on the Just Foreign Policy website, based on the Johns Hopkins' data, that stands at just over 1 million Iraqis killed as of this writing.

These numbers suggest that the invasion and occupation of Iraq rivals the great crimes of the last century -- the human toll exceeds the 800,000 to 900,000 believed killed in the Rwandan genocide in 1994, and is approaching the number (1.7 million) who died in Cambodia's infamous "Killing Fields" during the Khmer Rouge era of the 1970s.

While the stunning figures should play a major role in the debate over continuing the occupation, they probably won't. That's because there are three distinct versions of events in Iraq -- the bloody criminal nightmare that the "reality-based community" has to grapple with, the picture the commercial media portrays and the war that the occupation's last supporters have conjured up out of thin air. Similarly, American discourse has also developed three different levels of Iraqi casualties. There's the approximately 1 million killed according to the best epidemiological research conducted by one of the world's most prestigious scientific institutions, there's the 75,000-80,000 (based on news reports) the Washington Post and other commercial media allow, and there's the clean and antiseptic blood-free war the administration claims to have fought (recall that they dismissed the Lancet findings out of hand and yet offered no numbers of their own). Here's the troubling thing, and one reason why opposition to the war isn't even more intense than it is: Americans were asked in an AP poll conducted earlier this year how many Iraqi civilians they thought had been killed as a result of the invasion and occupation, and the median answer they gave was 9,890. That's less than a third of the number of civilian deaths confirmed by U.N. monitors in 2006 alone.

Most of that disconnect is probably a result of American exceptionalism -- the United States is, by definition, the good guy, and good guys don't launch wars of choice that result in over a million people being massacred. Never mind that that's exactly what the data show; acknowledging as much creates intolerable cognitive dissonance for most Americans, so as a nation, we won't.

But there's more to it than that. The dominant narrative of Iraq is that most of the violence against Iraqis is being perpetrated by Iraqis themselves and is not our responsibility. That's wrong morally -- we chose to go into Iraq despite the fact that public health NGOs warned in advance of the likelihood of 500,000 civilian deaths due to "collateral damage." It's also factually incorrect -- as Stony Brook University scholar Michael Schwartz noted a few months ago, the Johns-Hopkins study looked at who was responsible for the violent deaths it measured and found that coalition forces were directly responsible for 56 percent of the deaths in which the perpetrator was known. According to Schwartz's number crunching, based on the Lancet data, coalition troops were responsible for at least 180,000 and as many as 330,000 violent deaths through the middle of last year. There's no compelling reason to think the share attributable to occupation forces has decreased significantly since then.

Like the earlier study in the Lancet -- one that relied on widely accepted methodology for its results -- this new research is already being dismissed out of hand. The strange thing is that common sense alone should be enough to conclude that the United States has killed a huge number of Iraqi civilians. After all, it's become conventional wisdom (based on several studies) that about 90 percent of all casualties in modern warfare are civilians. We know that the military, in addition to deploying 500 missiles and bombs in the first six months of this year alone, has had trouble keeping up with the demand for bullets in the Iraqi theater. According to a 2005 report by Lt. Col. Dean Mengel at the Army War College, the number of rounds being fired off is enormous: [One news report] noted that the Army estimated it would need 1.5 billion small arms rounds per year, which was three times the amount produced just three years earlier. In another, it was noted by the Associated Press that soldiers were shooting bullets faster than they could be produced by the manufacturer. 1.5 billion rounds per year . more bullets fired than can be manufactured. Given that the estimated number of active insurgents in Iraq has never exceeded 30,000 -- and is usually given as less than 20,000 -- that leaves a lot of deadly lead flying around. Everyone agrees that the U.S. soldier is the best-trained fighter on earth, so it's somewhat bizarre that war supporters believe their shots rarely hit anybody.

If it weren't for the layers of denial that have been dutifully built up around the American strategic class, these figures might put to rest the notion that U.S. troops are preventing more deaths than they cause. Recall that the stated reason for the invasion was to reduce the number of countries suspected of having an illicit WMD program from 36 to 35. Amid all the talk of troop deaths and the billions of dollars being thrown away in Iraq, it's important to remember that it is the Iraqis that are paying such a dear price for achieving that modest goal. With a Congress frozen into inaction, all that remains to be seen is what the final death toll from the Iraq war will be. The sad truth is that we may never know the full scope of the carnage.

Joshua Holland is an AlterNet staff writer.

More Information on Iraq
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More Information on Iraq's Humanitarian Crisis
More Information on Atrocities and Criminal Homicides in Iraq


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