Learning to Count:
The Dead in Iraq

With Jeff Pflueger

“I would say 30,000, more or less, have died as a result of the initial incursion and the ongoing violence against Iraqis.”
– George W. Bush, Dec. 12, 2005, Philadelphia, Penn.

Does it count?

How many Iraqis have died as the result of the Anglo-American invasion and occupation of their country remains an unresolved question in the antiwar movement. It is a question the pro-war camp avoids. Yet what more important question is there?

The above quote made by the “compassionate conservative” shows a disturbing trend in the corporate media and among the spokespersons of the current powers that be to camouflage the true cost of the illegal occupation of Iraq – the cost in blood paid by Iraqis. It is a trend that ensures that the enormity of the atrocity goes unnoticed.

Mr. Bush has cited a figure that is obviously taken from the popular antiwar Web site Iraq Body Count (IBC), which proudly refers to its work on its home page as “The worldwide update of reported civilian deaths in the Iraq war and occupation.” This project estimates a minimum and maximum death count, which as of April 12 had the minimum number of Iraqi dead at 34,030 and the maximum at 38,164. We shall provide a brief description of their biased and flawed methodology after looking at the true level of casualties in Iraq.

We begin with a more accurate number provided by the British medical journal The Lancet on Oct. 29, 2004. The published results of their survey “Mortality Before and After the 2003 Invasion of Iraq: Cluster Sample Survey” stated, “Making conservative assumptions, we think about 100,000 excess deaths, or more, have happened since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Violence accounted for most of the excess deaths, and air strikes from coalition forces accounted for most violent deaths.” The report also added that “Most individuals reportedly killed by coalition forces were women and children,” and that “Eighty-four percent of the deaths were reported to be caused by the actions of Coalition forces.”

The report, whose findings have been strongly criticized, not surprisingly, by pro-war camps as well as, surprisingly, by researchers at Iraq Body Count, has been backed by established, credible sources.

Not long after The Lancet released these findings, on Nov. 19, 2004, the Financial Times wrote:

“This survey technique has been criticized as flawed, but the sampling method has been used by the same team in Darfur in Sudan and in the eastern Congo and produced credible results. An official at the World Health Organization said the Iraqi study ‘is very much in the league that the other studies are in.'”

The lead author of The Lancet report, Les Roberts, reported more recently on Feb. 8, 2006, that there may be as many as 300,000 Iraqi civilian deaths. One of the world’s top epidemiologists and a lecturer at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Roberts has also worked for the World Health Organization and the International Rescue Committee.

Further underscoring these results from The Lancet report were comments made by Bradley Woodruff, a medical epidemiologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who was quoted in the Chronicle of Higher Education on Jan. 27, 2005: “Les has used, and consistently uses, the best possible methodology.” The article continues,

“Indeed, the United Nations and the State Department have cited mortality numbers compiled by Mr. Roberts on previous conflicts as fact – and have acted on those results. [He] has studied mortality caused by war since 1992, having done surveys in locations including Bosnia, Congo, and Rwanda. His three surveys in Congo for the International Rescue Committee, a nongovernmental humanitarian organization, in which he used methods akin to those of his Iraq study, received a great deal of attention. ‘Tony Blair and Colin Powell have quoted those results time and time again without any question as to the precision or validity,’ he says.”

In an interview on Democracy Now! on Dec. 14, 2005, Roberts, when discussing why the figure from his report was too low, stated that it excluded Fallujah so as not to skew the survey, and said,

“And so, those who attacked us did not attack us for our methods. In fact, I think, if you read the reviews in the Wall Street Journal or The Economist, of what we did, the scientific community is quite soundly behind our approach. The criticism is of the imprecision. But realize the imprecision is: Was it 100,000 or was it 200,000? The question wasn’t: Was it only 30 or 40 [thousand]? There’s no chance it could have been only 30 or 40 [thousand].”

The staggering level of violence and death one of these authors has seen on the ground in Iraq certainly backs Roberts’ statements and those of other journalists, like veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk, who writes for the Independent. In an article on Dec. 30, 2005, Fisk wrote:

“We do not even know – are not allowed to know – how many of them have died. We know that 1,100 Iraqis died by violence in Baghdad in July alone. … But how many died in the other cities of Iraq, in Mosul and Kirkuk and Irbil, and in Amara and Fallujah and Ramadi and Najaf and Kerbala and Basra? Three thousand in July? Or four thousand? And if those projections are accurate, we are talking about 36,000 or 48,000 over the year – which makes that projected post-April 2003 figure of 100,000 dead, which Blair ridiculed, rather conservative, doesn’t it?”

This is also backed up by an update on March 30 for a MedAct report on the impact of the Iraq war provided by Kingston Reif.

Addressing the comments made by Bush regarding “30,000, more or less” dead Iraqis, Reif writes, “This is almost exactly the same as figures kept by Iraq Body Count.” His report takes issue with IBC as well as Iraqi officials as it continues:

“The problem with estimates provided by Iraqi officials and Iraq Body Count is that they only include those deaths that have resulted directly from violence. A much more comprehensive nationwide survey of all causes of mortality in Iraq was published in The Lancet in late October 2004. … Any attempt to gauge mortality in the midst of a conflict will be marked by a degree of uncertainty, but what should be beyond dispute is that The Lancet study is based on sound methodology. Yet in 2005 this continued to be questioned in the press [and later by IBC]. It is interesting that Roberts used nearly identical sampling techniques to study mortality in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in 2000, and that U.S. and British officials have quoted these findings without question in speeches condemning the killing in this case. Meanwhile, innocent Iraqis are continuing to be killed and wounded at an alarming rate. According to one recent estimate, nearly 800 were killed in January 2006, making it the deadliest month since September 2005.”

Noam Chomsky writes about the body count controversy in his latest book, Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy. Says Chomsky: “The estimates of Iraq Body Count are based on media reports, and are therefore surely well below the actual numbers. The Lancet study estimating 100,000 probable deaths by October 2004 elicited enough comment in England for the government to issue an embarrassing denial, but in the United States virtual silence prevailed.” Chomsky goes on to add that “On conservative assumptions, it would be … accurate to state … that ‘as few as 100,000’ died.”

Other Studies Worthy of Mention

An Iraqi humanitarian group headed by Dr. Hatim al-Alwani and affiliated with the political party of Interim President Ghazi al-Yawar released its report on July 12, 2005, making it the most recent survey to date. The group, Iraqiyun, counted 128,000 actual violent deaths and specified that it included only deaths confirmed by relatives, omitting the large numbers of people who have simply disappeared without a trace amid the ongoing bloodletting of Iraq.

Another group, the People’s Kifah, organized hundreds of Iraqi academics and volunteers who conducted a survey in coordination “with gravediggers across Iraq,” and who also “obtained information from hospitals and spoke to thousands of witnesses who saw incidents in which Iraqi civilians were killed by U.S. fire.” The project was abandoned when one of their researchers was captured by Kurdish militiamen, handed over to U.S. forces, and never seen again. Nevertheless, after less than two months’ work, the group documented a minimum of 37,000 violent civilian deaths prior to October 2003.

One survey, aside from figures from the U.S.-controlled Iraq Ministry of Health, posted figures that correlate with those from IBC. The Iraq Living Conditions Survey, conducted by a ministry under the U.S. Coalition Provisional Authority in April and May of 2004, cited 24,000 “war deaths.” The survey has been cited as credible simply because it was published by the UN Development Program, despite the fact that the designer of the survey, a Norwegian, stated that the number was certainly an underestimate. Over half the deaths reported in this survey were in southern Iraq, which suggests that it logged deaths caused by the initial invasion rather than the bloody aftermath as most of the other surveys note. In addition, this survey is now nearly two years out of date. The most violent last two years of the occupation have not been covered.

The Other War

“You cannot wage a war without rumors, without media, without propaganda. Any military planner who plans for a war, if he doesn’t put media/propaganda on top of his agenda, he’s a bad military.”
– (Samir Khader, senior producer at the al-Jazeera Satellite Television Network

Unprecedented access to information makes the Iraq information war to win minds unparalleled in history and nearly as intense as the battles being fought on the ground in Baghdad and Fallujah. Specific battles in any war can be located in time and space. For instance, the U.S. defeat in Fallujah in April 2004 and the largely undocumented battle of Baghdad in April 2003. So, too, can the battles of the Iraq Information War be located by time and theme. Currently, of all of the information battles being waged, none is perhaps as important as the counting of Iraqi civilian deaths at the hands of coalition forces. It is in this context that all received information on the Iraq war (including the present piece) should be interpreted.

Predictably, the U.S. government has identified the number of civilian casualties in Iraq as a vital front in the war of information, and their public relations efforts to minimize the body count has been largely successful in the U.S. The Center for Media and Democracy, a U.S.-based public relations and media watchdog organization, recently awarded the Bush administration and the U.S. corporate media with the “2005 Silver Falsies Award” for not counting the dead in Iraq.

Iraq Body Count Web Site

When President Bush recently spoke of 30,000 civilians killed in Iraq, his press secretary stated that he was citing “published reports.” What he was probably citing was Iraq Body Count.

Others conveniently misuse the IBC figure, like the Herald Sun, the largest selling newspaper in Australia, in a March 22 editorial, which reads,

“In the three years since the war’s start, as many as 37,800 Iraqi civilians are reckoned to have died in fighting, most now killed by Islamists. That figure comes from Iraq Body Count, a much-quoted Left-wing Internet project that has been criticized for including in its count Iraqis killed in robberies, ‘celebratory gun fire,’ or road accidents with military vehicles. In other words, its count tends to the high side.”

IBC began with the dual goals of research and aggressive Web marketing. According to John Sloboda, the founder of IBC,

“Our motivations for starting the work were political but from a humanitarian more than ideological motive. We abhor the invasion and occupation, and our primary reason for abhorring it is its cost in human life lost, injury and trauma caused, and lives ruined.”

It is important to mention here that Iraq Body Count figures are not intended as an estimate of total deaths. The site’s stated agenda is to record only war-related violent deaths that have been reported by at least two approved international media sources, at any given time. This generates a record that is accepted by the media that publishes these reports in the first place. IBC acknowledges that thousands of deaths go unreported in its database, and it has maintained a steady distance from politicians and the media misrepresenting its figures as an actual estimate of deaths. The Web site’s “minimum” number now stands at about 34,000.

Critics have been quick to point to problems in the IBC research. Sheldon Rampton, director of research at the Center for Media and Democracy, has criticized the methodology. “[IBC uses] what medical researchers call ‘passive research.’ Unlike ‘active research,’ which seeks to accurately count or estimate ALL casualties, passive research relies on other sources, in this instance, published newspaper reports. The fact that passive research produces undercounts is well-understood within the community of medical researchers.” But Sheldon sees merit in IBC’s work because he feels at least “they have made an effort to recognize that Iraqi casualties are worth counting.”

Another valid criticism of IBC relates to its exclusively Western media sources, which tend to be large media organizations that do not report the day-to-day violence that occurs in Iraq. IBC requires a source to be an “English language site,” excluding at the outset more than 500 Arabic and Persian news outlets that the people of the Middle East rely on for information.

IBC completely ignores sources that are likely to contain more information about the daily violence in Iraq. This despite the fact that there exist organizations such as MidEastWire and LinkTV’s Peabody Award Winning Mosaic to translate and make available news from the Middle East translated into English.

IBC has obtained an enormous exposure on the Internet through aggressive and clever Web marketing. Today, if one searches the word “Iraq” in Google, IBC’s Web site is the second result, only after the CIA World Fact Book.

Its marketing success is owed in part to the clever and ubiquitous IBC counter. Visitors to the IBC Web site are encouraged to download a running counter that they can place on their own site. Rankings in search engines such as Google depend on how many important and related Web sites link to any given site. IBC’s ranking is so high because there are a multitude of Web sites with Iraq-related content that link to IBC through the IBC counter.

The IBC Shift

At its inception, the IBC cause was quickly embraced by the peace movement and despised by war supporters. IBC data represented at the time the only compiled and readily available information about civilian casualties.

By the time George Bush cited IBC’s data in his famous public statement that “30,000, more or less, have died as a result of the initial incursion and the ongoing violence against Iraqis,” IBC had gone from being an important part of antiwar propaganda to a vital agent of war propaganda, by virtue of vastly understating the actual number of civilians killed in the Iraq war. IBC data became the tool of choice for the Bush administration and the U.S. corporate media to refute the growing public awareness that the Iraq war was in fact killing well over a hundred thousand innocent Iraqi men, women, and children.

For the Bush administration and its well-paid public relations firms, the greatest coup was perhaps that not only do the IBC numbers vastly low-ball the actual civilian casualties in Iraq, but that IBC appears to be an antiwar site! The Bush administration could not have paid to manufacture better propaganda.

Disturbingly, thus far we do not notice any serious effort on the part of IBC to reverse this trend, apart from the small step of changing its counter title from “Civilian casualties update” to “Reported civilian deaths,” ostensibly to clarify what the data is and what it was not. It also posted a statement on its Web site about how Mr. Bush misused its data.

John Sloboda, founder of IBC, refused to comment on specific questions we asked about how IBC planned to correct the misuse of its data for pro-war propaganda.

Count or Else

Sheldon Rampton, author of Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush’s War in Iraq, wrote to us:

“The war in Iraq is occurring under conditions in which tallying the dead is easier than it was during the U.S. Civil War, the First and Second World Wars, or for that matter any war that has been fought during the past two centuries. If it was possible to compile casualty figures during those wars, there is no good reason why it cannot be done in Iraq. The real reason that it’s not happening is that the people who are responsible for the war don’t want the dead to become a topic of public discussion.”

But if the number of innocent Iraqi men, women, and children killed in the war is to become a topic of public discussion, the people responsible for the war want to minimize the count. The story of Iraq Body Count provides perhaps the most fascinating saga of this battle of statistics and propaganda.

We want to emphasize that this critique is not against the stated purpose of IBC. Their excellent work, particularly during the invasion and early days of the occupation, was extremely important. We are, however, alarmed at their apparent lack of concern at the way their information is being usurped by the pro-war camp to manipulate public opinion and minimize the catastrophe the failed U.S. occupation has become for Iraqis. The authors of this piece submit that if, as it claims, IBC is truly a humanitarian research project armed for greater impact with an aggressive and sophisticated marketing system, it must not allow its data to be misused and misrepresented for pro-war propaganda campaigns.

If IBC cannot prevent the misuse of its data, it would be better for it to remove its Web site and counters from the Internet permanently. It must then limit itself to objective scholarly research of the English media without sophisticated marketing paraphernalia.

Jeff Pflueger is Dahr Jamail’s electronic publicist. His web site is jeffpflueger.com.

(Reprinted courtesy of Truthout.org.)

Author: Dahr Jamail

Dahr Jamail has reported from inside Iraq and is the author of Beyond the Green Zone.