Honest Numbers on Iraqi Deaths Deserve Honest Context

Posted: Apr 29, 2009 12:01 AM
Honest Numbers on Iraqi Deaths Deserve Honest Context

An authoritative new study of civilian casualties in the Iraq War shows that opponents of that conflict have wildly and consistently exaggerated its human costs.

Based on previously secret figures from the Iraqi Health Ministry, as well as numbers from the British Group “Iraq Body Count” and its own investigation of hospital records and death certificates, the Associated Press concluded that 110,600 Iraqis died since the beginning of the American Invasion. This contrasts with irresponsible and unscientific estimates from various sources that often put the casualties as ten times that high.

For instance, the best known previous estimate of Iraqi deaths came from a notoriously unreliable “household survey” conducted by investigators from Johns Hopkins University and published in the British medical Journal, “The Lancet”. It concluded that 601,027 Iraqis had perished by July, 2006. An even less credible survey, by the British marketing research company, Opinion Research Business, concluded that more than a million Iraqis had died (of a total population of 29 million) by August, 2007.

The new Associated Press report used previously undisclosed data from the Health Ministry, supplementing this total (87,215) with deaths reported from other sources. As reporter Kim Gamel explained: “The AP reviewed the Iraq Body Count analysis and confirmed its conclusions by sifting the data and consulting experts. The AP also interviewed experts involved with the previous studies, prominent Iraq analysts, and provincial and medical officials to determine that the new tally was credible.”

All this careful work yielded far more persuasive numbers than the hysterical reports always favored by the anti-war movement and deployed as part of its effort to depict the war as one of the great genocides of human history.

But while the Associated Press deserves credit for its honest and responsible work, their account of the new totals still failed to place the figures in any meaningful perspective. For instance, the analysis failed to note that the overwhelming majority of the 110,600 dead met their demise at the hands of terrorist violence or sectarian strife; only a tiny minority (perhaps 10% or less) of all casualties occurred at the hands of the Americans or other coalition forces. The AP account does take note of the fact that the Health Ministry figures show that 59,957 of their reported 87,215 deaths (or more than two thirds) occurred in 2006 and 2007 “when sectarian attacks soared and death squads roamed the streets. The period was marked by catastrophic bombings and execution style killings.” The story might have added that the Americans perpetrated none of these mass killings, and instead fought heroically to bring them to an end.

In another area, the description of the new calculations lacked an essential element of context, never noting that other recent conflicts in the region produced far more horrendous death tolls. In the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88, for instance, more than 200,000 Iraqis died – a much higher percentage of a significantly smaller overall population. That conflict also claimed the lives of at least 1,000,000 Iranians.

Meanwhile, the little noted Algerian Civil War (in which Islamist extremists have challenged the government since 1991) has claimed at least 150,000 deaths, and probably more than 200,000—nearly all of them civilians butchered in the same random, brutal and often suicidal attacks responsible for most of the bloodshed in Iraq. With the Algerian and Iraqi populations essentially the same, the rate of death in this grisly but seldom-reported conflict has been even more horrendous than the blood-letting in Iraq.

Of course the Lebanese Civil War of 1975-1990 produced the most devastating results of any struggle in recent Middle Eastern history – with an estimated 250,000 dead, and at least 500,000 more suffering permanent disabilities. In a nation of less than 5,000,000, this loss of life exceeds the Iraqi casualty rate by more than twelve to one.

The relevance of these other conflicts ought to be obvious – since they all reflect (as does the Iraq War) the singularly brutal, blood-thirsty nature of local conflicts involving Arab-against-Arab, and Muslim-against-Muslim. In each of these wars, the most significant American role (which is very much the case in Iraq) involved efforts to stop or to minimize the bloodshed.

The new figures on Iraqi casualties, when placed in the proper context of who did most of the killing, and with reminders of even bloodier struggles of the recent past, show the hollowness and falsehood of hysterical denunciations of the US effort to bring down Saddam Hussein and establish a functioning democracy in the heart of the turbulent Middle East.