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Robert Naiman

Robert Naiman

Posted: August 14, 2007 01:06 PM

U.S. Media Ignores Estimate of 1 Million Iraqi Deaths


Yesterday a radio interviewer in South Africa asked me what had been the response of the "mainstream media in the United States" to Just Foreign Policy's ongoing estimate of the Iraqi death toll from the U.S. invasion and occupation, which on Thursday crossed the one million mark.

Just Foreign Policy Iraqi Death Estimator

Sadly, I had to report that it has been ignored by mainstream media, even the wire services. But this is hardly surprising. A main motivation for constructing the web counter was to keep the "Lancet study" alive. The "Lancet study," you'll recall, was a study published last fall in the British medical journal The Lancet, which estimated that more than 600,000 Iraqis had had been killed as a result of the invasion as of July 2006. The media largely buried the Lancet study when it was published - and have largely ignored the question of the overall death toll from the U.S. invasion - so it's little surprise that they have ignored our attempt to shine a light on this question.

The Lancet study is the only existing study that uses the method accepted all over the world for estimating deaths due to large-scale violent conflict: a cluster survey. Its principal deficit for understanding the current situation is that the survey it was based on is now a year old, so that when people want to invoke the Lancet study to describe the death toll, they are likely to say, "a year ago the death toll was over 600,000" - leaving out what has happened since. Since the Lancet study is "old news," it's progressively easier to ignore it over time. It was this problem that gave us the idea of constructing an ongoing, rough update.

The tally of deaths reported in the Western media by Iraq Body Count, although it gives an inaccurate picture of the overall death toll, does have the advantage that it is regularly updated. So while the Iraq Body Count tally, by itself, doesn't help us understand the overall death toll, it does give us some information about the trend over time, because one can compare, for example, the Iraq Body Count tally today with the Iraq Body Count tally from July 2006.

Thus, we constructed our ongoing online estimate - for which we provide the code so you can include it on your own web page - by extrapolating from the Lancet estimate using the trend provided by Iraq Body Count.

Our extrapolation assumes that Iraq Body Count is capturing a fixed proportion of the true level of deaths over time. This is a conservative assumption, because it is likely that Iraq Body Count is capturing a smaller share of the true death toll over time, as reporting from Iraq becomes progressively more difficult. By assuming that Iraq Body Count captures a constant share, we will tend to underestimate the true death toll.

Note that the number we focus on is the Lancet estimate of excess deaths due to violence. Thus, we understate the death toll by ignoring, say, increased deaths due to cholera which could be attributed, at least in part, to the destruction resulting from the U.S. invasion and occupation.

Note further that a straight-line extrapolation from the Lancet study - ignoring any increase in the death rate in the last year from the average between March, 2003 and July, 2006 - an average that includes the first year of the occupation, when by all accounts the death rate was lower - would still result in more than 750,000 excess deaths due to violence.

Increasingly, the U.S. occupation is described as a passive onlooker to the violence. This is deeply misleading for two reasons. First, the civil war - or civil wars - that have been unleashed in Iraq was a predictable - and predicted - result of the U.S. invasion. Everything is predicted if one searches enough, but in this case, for example, James Baker gave the threat of unleashing a civil war as a key reason why the U.S. didn't go to Baghdad in 1991, so it's absurd to treat this as an unforeseeable consequence. Second, the picture is being obscured by underreporting in the U.S. of deaths from U.S. air strikes, raids, and shooting at checkpoints.

Why does this matter? Obviously, we have a responsibility to understand the world as best we can, and nowhere is this responsibility greater than in trying to understand the consequences of the actions of our government. But the question is particularly urgent, because there is a major effort underway to rehabilitate the war politically, by cherry-picking - and misinterpreting - current developments. The surge is working, we are told: it must be given more time. If the scale of the overall death toll from the U.S. invasion becomes part of the debate, this sleight-of-hand will be much harder to maintain.