Learning to Count: The Dead in Iraq
By Dahr Jamail and Jeff Pflueger
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Thursday 13 April 2006
*/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, December 12, 2005, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
*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
anti-war 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 amongst 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 which is obviously taken from the popular
anti-war 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 October 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 their findings, on November 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 February 8, 2006,
that there may be as many as 300,000 Iraqi civilian deaths. One of the
world's top epidemiologists who lectures 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 US Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention, who was quoted in the Chronicle of
Higher Education on January 27, 2005: "Les has used, and consistently
uses, the best possible methodology." The article
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!
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's statements and those of
other journalists, like veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk,
who writes for the Independent. In an article
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,
This is also backed up by an update on March 30th 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-Yawir released
its report on July 12, 2005, making it the most recent survey to date.
The group, Iraqiyun
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 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 grave-diggers 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 US 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 US-controlled Iraq Ministry of
Health, posted figures which correlate with those from IBC. The Iraq
Living Conditions Survey ,
conducted by a Ministry under the US 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 US 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 US 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 US. The Center for Media and Democracy
, a US-based public relations and media
watchdog organization, recently awarded the Bush administration and the
US 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 22nd 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 data base and 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
Critics have been quick to point to problems in the IBC research.
Sheldon Rampton, who is the 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
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
IBC's website 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
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 anti-war 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 US 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 anti-war 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
*Count or Else*
Sheldon Rampton, with the Center for Media and Democracy, who authored
/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 US 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.
This article originally published on Truthout
Dahr Jamail is an independent journalist who spent over eight months
reporting from occupied Iraq. He presented evidence of US war crimes in
Iraq at the International Commission of Inquiry on Crimes Against
Humanity Committed by the Bush Administration in New York City in
January 2006. He writes regularly for TruthOut, Inter Press Service,
Asia Times and TomDispatch, and maintains his own web site,
Jeff Pflueger is Dahr Jamail's electronic publicist. His web site is
(c)2004, 2005 Dahr Jamail.
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