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Iraqi Body Count Out In Time For Elections

From a "science writer" at the DNC's Associated Press:

AFP caption: US soldiers drive past a pool of blood in Baghdad. A study by US researchers for The Lancet has estimated that 655,000 Iraqis — or around one in 40 of the Iraq population — have died as a result of the 2003 invasion of their country

Study: 655,000 Iraqis die because of war

By MALCOLM RITTER, AP Science Writer

Wed Oct 11

NEW YORK – A controversial new study contends nearly 655,000 Iraqis have died because of the war, suggesting a far higher death toll than other estimates.

The timing of the survey's release, just a few weeks before the U.S. congressional elections, led one expert to call it "politics."

In the new study, researchers attempt to calculate how many more Iraqis have died since March 2003 than one would expect without the war. Their conclusion, based on interviews of households and not a body count, is that about 600,000 died from violence, mostly gunfire. They also found a small increase in deaths from other causes like heart disease and cancer.

"Deaths are occurring in Iraq now at a rate more than three times that from before the invasion of March 2003," Dr. Gilbert Burnham, lead author of the study, said in a statement.

The study by Burnham, of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and others is to be published Thursday on the Web site of The Lancet, a medical journal.

An accurate count of Iraqi deaths has been difficult to obtain, but one respected group puts its rough estimate at closer to 50,000. And at least one expert was skeptical of the new findings.

"They're almost certainly way too high," said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington. He criticized the way the estimate was derived and noted that the results were released shortly before the Nov. 7 election.

"This is not analysis, this is politics," Cordesman said.

The work updates an earlier Johns Hopkins study — that one was released just before the November 2004 presidential election. At the time, the lead researcher, Les Roberts of Hopkins, said the timing was deliberate. Many of the same researchers were involved in the latest estimate.

Speaking of the new study, Burnham said the estimate was much higher than others because it was derived from a house-to-house survey rather than approaches that depend on body counts or media reports.

A private group called Iraqi Body Count, for example, says it has recorded about 44,000 to 49,000 civilian Iraqi deaths. But it notes that those totals are based on media reports, which it says probably overlook "many if not most civilian casualties."

For Burnham's study, researchers gathered data from a sample of 1,849 Iraqi households with a total of 12,801 residents from late May to early July. That sample was used to extrapolate the total figure. The estimate deals with deaths up to July.

The survey participants attributed about 31 percent of violent deaths to coalition forces.

Accurate death tolls have been difficult to obtain ever since the Iraq conflict began in March 2003. When top Iraqi political officials cite death numbers, they often refuse to say where the numbers came from.

The Health Ministry, which tallies civilian deaths, relies on reports from government hospitals and morgues. The Interior Ministry compiles its figures from police stations, while the Defense Ministry reports deaths only among army soldiers and insurgents killed in combat.

The United Nations keeps its own count, based largely on reports from the Baghdad morgue and the Health Ministry.

The major funder of the new study was the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

As the article points out, two years ago we were treated to a strikingly similar "study" from the same authors in the New York Times:

Study Puts Iraqi Deaths of Civilians at 100,000

October 29th, 2004 

By Elisabeth Rosenthal / New York Times

An estimated 100,000 civilians have died in Iraq as a direct or indirect consequence of the March 2003 United States-led invasion, according to a new study by a research team at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Coming just five days before the presidential election the finding is certain to generate intense controversy, since it is far higher than previous mortality estimates for the Iraq conflict.

Editors of The Lancet, the London-based medical publication, where an article describing the study is scheduled to appear, decided not to wait for the normal publication date next week, but to place the research online Friday, apparently so it could circulate before the election.

The Bush administration has not estimated civilian casualties from the conflict, and independent groups have put the number at most in the tens of thousands.

In the study, teams of researchers led by Dr. Les Roberts fanned out across Iraq in mid-September to interview nearly 1,000 families in 33 locations. Families were interviewed about births and deaths in the household before and after the invasion.

Although the authors acknowledge that data collection was difficult in what is effectively still a war zone, the data they managed to collect is extensive. Using what they described as the best sampling methods that could be applied under the circumstances, they found that Iraqis were 2.5 times more likely to die in the 17 months following the invasion than in the 14 months before it.

Before the invasion, the most common causes of death in Iraq were heart attacks, strokes and chronic diseases. Afterward, violent death was far ahead of all other causes.

"We were shocked at the magnitude but we're quite sure that the estimate of 100,000 is a conservative estimate," said Dr. Gilbert Burnham of the Johns Hopkins team. Dr. Burnham said the team excluded data about deaths in Falluja in making their estimate, because that city was the site of unusually intense violence.

In 15 of the 33 communities visited, residents reported violent deaths in their families since the conflict started. They attributed many of those deaths to attacks by American-led forces, mostly airstrikes, and most of those killed were women and children. The risk of violent death was 58 times higher than before the war, the researchers reported.

The team included researchers from the Johns Hopkins Center for International Emergency, Disaster and Refugee Studies and included doctors from Al Mustansiriya University Medical School in Baghdad.

There is bound to be skepticism about the estimate of 100,000 excess deaths, since that translates into an average of 166 deaths a day since the invasion. But some people were not surprised. "I am emotionally shocked but I have no trouble in believing that this many people have been killed," said Scott Lipscomb, an associate professor at Northwestern University, who works on the www.iraqbodycount.net project.

That project, which collates only deaths reported in the news media, currently put the maximum civilian death toll at just under 17,000. "We've always maintained that the actual count must be much higher," Mr. Lipscomb said.

The researchers said they were highly technical in their selection of interview sites and data analysis, although interview locations were limited by the decision to cut down on driving time when possible in order to reduce the risk to the interviewers. Each team included an Iraqi health worker, generally a physician.

Although the teams relied primarily on interviews with local residents, they also requested to see at least two death certificates at the end of interviews in each area, to try to ensure that people had remembered and responded honestly. The research team decided that asking for death certificates in each case, during the interviews, might cause hostility and could put the research team in danger.

Some of those killed may have been insurgents, not civilians, the authors noted. Also, the rise in deaths included a rise in murders and some deaths were caused by the decline of medical care. "But the majority of excess mortality is clearly due to violence," Dr. Burnham said.

The study is scientific, reserving judgment on the politics of the Iraq conflict. But Dr. Roberts and his colleagues are critical of the Bush administration and the Army for not releasing estimates of civilian deaths.

"This study shows that with moderate funds, four weeks and seven Iraqi team members willing to risk their lives, a useful measure of civilian deaths could be obtained," the authors wrote.

Mind you, there's nothing political about this.

It's just a coincidence that these studies have come out just days before the last two elections.

The 2004 Lancet Study was considered so ridiculous it even garnered a Wikipedia entry in which we find this admission:

Lancet surveys of mortality before and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq

Les Roberts stated "I emailed it in on Sept. 30 under the condition that it came out before the election. My motive in doing that was not to skew the election. My motive was that if this came out during the campaign, both candidates would be forced to pledge to protect civilian lives in Iraq. I was opposed to the war and I still think that the war was a bad idea, but I think that our science has transcended our perspectives."

And how about that "pool of blood" photo? Is AFP using Reuters’ photographers now?

(Thanks to Eagle 334th and Patricko for the heads up.)

This article was posted by Steve on Wednesday, October 11th, 2006. Comments are currently closed.

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