Iraqi Civilian Deaths

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Iraqi Civilian Deaths, By The Numbers

June 27, 2006 

Did you know that every time Al Qaeda kidnaps, tortures and beheads a civilian in Iraq it is the fault of the U.S.?  Did you know that the U.S. is responsible for approximately 40,000 civilian deaths in Iraq, and possibly as many as 100,000 or even 200,000?  Did you know that President Bush admits this, at least indirectly?

On December 12, 2005, President Bush was asked how many civilians have died in the Iraq war.  His answer: "I would say 30,000, more or less, have died as a result of the initial incursion and the ongoing violence against Iraqis."

Bush's answer spawned many responses throughout the media and blogs.  One thing his answer did was establish a "lower bound" on the number of civilian deaths caused by the U.S. Coalition's invasion of Iraq.  But is that so?

While no one knows for sure where Bush's "30,000" came from, it was amazingly close to that cited by The Iraq Body Count (IBC).  At the time of Bush's statement, the IBC web site was citing a count between 27,383 and 30,892.  By his statement, President Bush validated the IBC's estimates.  As of June 27, 2006, the IBC was citing a count between 38,475 and 42,880; so the current count is more like 40,000.

There are some estimates that are even higher.  In 2004 the British medical journal The Lancet estimated the civilian death count at almost 100,000 based on Iraqi household surveys.  Anti-war types touted the Lancet study as more evidence that "Bush lied" yet again by putting the estimate at "only" 30,000.  But the Lancet admitted that the range of uncertainty was 8,000 to 194,000.  (The IBC site includes a defense of its own count versus higher ones.)

The IBC is no friend of Bush or even a neutral organization.  Its sources include Al Jazeera, The Jordan Times, and The South African Broadcasting Corporation.  According to its own press release: "The question still stands, and Iraqis are still being killed in increasing numbers. How many more must die before the architects of the ‘military solution' for Iraq realize that the only sure way to reduce violence is to stop inflicting it?"  Does it sound like a pro-Bush organization to you?

Yet few people seem eager to look into the IBC's figures, especially since President Bush seemed to validate them.  Did the U.S. really kill 40,000 Iraqi civilians?  Did President Bush really say that?

Note that the President attributed the 30,000 not only to our invasion, but also to "the ongoing violence".  In that sense, his answer was likely technically true.  That is, Al Qaeda and anti-Iraq terrorists have used car bombs, roadside bombs, suicide bombings, kidnappings, and shootings to kill thousands of Iraqi civilians.

While President Bush did not say that the "ongoing violence" is the fault of the U.S., the IBC has no such misgivings; it includes "all civilians deaths attributed to our military intervention in Iraq", by which it means any death whatsoever, including those perpetrated by Al Qaeda, as long as the death rate is higher than what it estimates as pre-invasion rates.  By IBC's calculus, every new beheading in Iraq is attributable to "our military intervention".

This analysis is both misleading and outright wrong.

First, it is misleading because most of us think of civilian deaths in terms of our bombs that missed their targets or civilians caught in the crossfire of urban warfare.  Fewer than 40% of the IBC's estimate are due directly to such U.S. Coalition actions.  IBC's estimate would be closer to 5,000-10,000 under such terms, even with its generous accounting.  Instead, by the IBC's curious methodology of comparing death rates before and after "invasion", the Holocaust would be blamed on Allied intervention in Germany.

And I guess I should state the obvious.  Virtually zero civilian deaths were caused by deliberate U.S. Coalition actions.  The U.S. does not target civilians.  Whatever few cases might exist are investigated and prosecuted.

Secondly, the analysis is wrong even if we were to use the IBC's methodology.  Missing in the IBC's pre-invasion numbers is any mention of the Iraq-Iran war, the Iraq-Kuwait war, or hundreds of mass graves.  Numbers attributed to these two wars easily reach 1,000,000 dead.  And over 400,000 bodies have been found in mass graves as of 2004.  That's easily 1,400,000 deaths over approximately 20 years.

Let's do some math.  Those 1.4 million deaths over 20 years is an annual death rate of 70,000.  Using IBC's numbers of 40,000 deaths over three years at face value gives an annual rate of about 13,000.  By IBC's own post-invasion numbers, our military invasion is saving 57,000 lives per year!

If we use a post-invasion count that is based only on direct causes, rather than inferred from pre- and post-invasion differences, we get a total less than 10,000 over three years and 67,000 lives saved per year.

So even by the IBC's own methodology of comparing pre- and post-invasion violent death rates, the invasion has saved tens of thousands of lives each year.  The IBC simply ignores two major wars and over 270 mass graves.

I will say this for the IBC: they show their data.  A complete database is available on their web site, which can be cut and pasted into a spreadsheet.  The spreadsheet has 7,997 rows covering 3,706 incidents.  The descriptions of some incidents appear detailed, such as 7 "bodies found shot, tortured" in Baghdad, with weapons being "gunfire, executed, tortured".

But that apparently exhaustive detail is misleading.  Almost 60% of the IBC's death count is due to 54 incidents (out of 3,706) which the IBC claims killed at least 100 people each.  And the larger the incident's death count, the more vague the evidence becomes.  The largest single entry is coded "x073" with a death count between 1,474 and 2,000.  The source?  Records from 19 Baghdad area hospitals.  Other sources are similar: body counts in morgues.  Other large body count incidents involve thinly-evidenced assertions about major battles like Fallujah.

And then there are questions about the definition of "civilians".  How many of the dead in Fallujah were truly civilians?  When the bad guys don't wear uniforms, they tend to get counted as civilians.  When rival groups like Sunni and Shia militias have a shoot out, the IBC counts the dead as "civilians".

So while the IBC ignores two major wars and 270 mass graves in its pre-invasion numbers, it includes all violent deaths for any reason reported from just about any source, including Al Jazeera, in its post-invasion numbers.

Why did President Bush validate that flawed count?  Actually, he didn't.  He stated the technical truth, namely that "the ongoing violence" has killed thousands of civilians.  However, the media has abused and twisted this fact about our enemies to one about us.

The real big picture is that both the military and civilian death counts due to the U.S. Coalition's regime change in Iraq are among the lowest in the history of warfare.  The U.S. lost more men in single battles of the Civil War and the World Wars than in three years in Iraq.  And in fact, our intervention can be credited with saving tens of thousands of civilian lives each year since 2003.

Most importantly, it is time to state the obvious.  It is not the U.S., but its enemies such as Saddam Hussein, the Ba'athists and Al Qaeda that are and have been killing civilians by the thousands for the last 20 years.

Question authority.  And question anti-authority as well.

Randall Hoven lives, works and teaches in the St. Louis area.