The U.S. military is planning a large polling operation in Iraq over the next three years to help "build robust and positive relations with the people of Iraq and to assist the Iraqi people in forming a new government," Walter Pincus reports in the Washington Post.
This provides an excellent opportunity to revisit an important question:
How many Iraqis have died since the U.S. invasion?
The $15 million-a-year initiative will supplement the military's $100 million-a-year strategic communications operation, which aims to produce content for Iraqi media that will "engage and inspire" the population, Pincus notes.
The size and scope of the program "will provide an extraordinary amount of data," said a former government official. Another former official noted that $15 million is far more than the State Department allocates annually for its polling activities worldwide.
Pincus notes that the larger Pentagon project of which this polling is a part has been controversial in Congress. In particular, Senator Webb has asked for suspension of the new Army contracts to produce print, radio and television news stories as well as entertainment programs in Iraq.
While I support Senator Webb's very reasonable proposal, I would also like to suggest a different approach to the proposed polling project.
In particular, I think Congress should require the Pentagon to ask Iraqis the following questions:
"How many members of your household have died since March, 2003? How many members of your household have died since March, 2003 due to violence?"
Inclusion of these questions would allow the U.S. government to estimate how many Iraqis have been killed since the U.S. invasion.
Not only should Congress require the Pentagon to ask these questions, but Congress should require the Pentagon to use the data so gathered to create estimates of Iraqi deaths since 2003, and of how many of those deaths were due to violence. And Congress should require that those numbers be reported to Congress.
When the "Lancet study" (that is, the Johns Hopkins study) estimated two years ago that 600,000 Iraqis had died, President Bush dismissed the study as "not credible," without offering his own estimate, or explaining why that estimate was "not credible."
Much ink has been spilled since then in the dispute over estimates of Iraqi casualties (relatively little, however, of that ink has been spilled in our corporate media in the United States.)
Just Foreign Policy publishes an extrapolation of the Lancet study, using the trend which can be inferred from the Iraq Body Count tally. If the Lancet study estimate was roughly correct, and if Iraq Body Count gives a roughly accurate trend, that would suggest more than a million deaths due to violence in Iraq since March 2003, over and above what would have occurred had there been no U.S. invasion.
Now, the Bush Administration has the opportunity to set the record straight. The Pentagon is, apparently, going to be polling Iraqis anyway, so there would be no additional cost. And if the Pentagon is going to be polling Iraqis on a regular basis, then the question could be repeated, so as to arrive at a more accurate estimate.
I double dare the Pentagon to ask Iraqis this question. If the Pentagon is brave, it will agree.
Of course, it could well be that, facing the prospect of being required to come up with its own estimate of Iraqi deaths, the Pentagon would lose interest in polling Iraqis. So be it. But if the Pentagon is going to poll Iraqis, then this simple question should be among the questions that they ask.