[political rant below the cut, to spare the uninterested]

On Friday the Lancet published a report by, among others, the wonderful Richard Garfield, which estimated 98,000 deaths caused by the Iraq war. The previous best estimate was around 16,000. The only reason it was that low is that it relied entirely on deaths reported by journalists. Journalists don’t dare go into the really nasty bits of Iraq any more, and even where they do go they miss a lot of deaths, and don’t often notice the less bloody deaths caused by, for example, the US policy of cutting of water to hundreds of thousands of civilians

Not that you’d notice that from the government or media response, which was basically to rubbish the Lancet report and suddenly decide that the IBC figures they’ve been dismissing for the past 18 months are really very accurate. My personal favourite is this beautiful response from Downing Street:

Asked if the Prime Minister was concerned about a survey published today suggesting that 100,000 Iraqi civilians had died as a result of the war in Iraq, the PMOS said that it was important to treat the figures with caution because there were a number of concerns and doubts about the methodology that had been used. Firstly, the survey appeared to be based on an extrapolation technique rather than a detailed body count. Our worries centred on the fact that the technique in question appeared to treat Iraq as if every area was one and the same. In terms of the level of conflict, that was definitely not the case. Secondly, the survey appeared to assume that bombing had taken place throughout Iraq. Again, that was not true. It had been focussed primarily on areas such as Fallujah. Consequently, we did not believe that extrapolation was an appropriate technique to use.

Just about every sentence of that is seriously misleading. Let’s take it bit by bit:

a) “it was important to treat the figures with caution because there were a number of concerns and doubts about the methodology that had been used.” But they can’t deny that these are the best figures we have so far. Putting it another way: does the government have better figures? If so, why are they secret? If not, why don’t they care about casualty figures?

b) “the survey appeared to be based on an extrapolation technique rather than a detailed body count.” Said as if it is a bad thing. In Iraq, where there are so many no-go areas, it would be impossible to count every casualty. Attempts to do so, like Iraq Body Count, underestimate because the areas where people are being killed are the same areas journalists don’t dare go. The same with Ministry of Health figures, which only count people who die in hospital, or are taken to hospitals after they die.

c) “…the technique in question appeared to treat Iraq as if every area was one and the same. In terms of the level of conflict, that was definitely not the case.
They did surveys in 33 areas of Iraq. Then, to get the figure of 100,000 deaths, they excluded the area where conflict was most intense, namely Fallujah. They did collect figures for Fallujah which were much higher than for the other areas sampled. So they basically ignored them. If you include them – which is what the PMOS implies the problem is – you get a figure of about 298,000 excess deaths.

d) “the survey appeared to assume that bombing had taken place throughout Iraq. Again, that was not true. It had been focussed primarily on areas such as Fallujah.” Given the exclusion of Fallujah mentioned above, this is completely misleading. Or is the PMOS claiming that *all* 33 areas surveyed suffered significantly higher bombing than the rest of Iraq?

e) “Consequently, we did not believe that extrapolation was an appropriate technique to use.” This is equivalent to saying “we don’t believe in surveys“. Unless you rigorously count deaths (which you can’t really do unless you’re the government, you have to extrapolate. The results aren’t going to be perfect, but they’ll be a lot more reliable than any body count NGOs or academics can do

Other things that aren’t being talked about much:

  • there were something like 38,000 deaths of children under 15. That’s not in the report itself, and the sample size is very small, but you can get it from the data they use
  • “”most individuals reportedly killed by coalition forces were women and children”
  • Most violent deaths resulted from air strikes. “Surgical strikes”, anyone?

Good. Got that off my chest. Back to LJ trivia!

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