“I cannot help but note that this “controversy” consists of ten parts people like you saying that there is a controversy, mixed with zero parts actual statisticians raising concerns about the utterly uncontroversial methods employed”

Daniel Davies

Right on cue, everyone’s on message with the stock charge that the Lancet report is not credible. Australia’s PM Howard is the latest voice to join the howl of disbelief emananting from Western capitals following the Lancet report published yesterday. Howard said he just did not believe that 655,000 more people have died in Iraq since March 2003 than would have died had the invasion not taken place. He scoffed, “it’s not plausible. It’s not based on anything other than a house to house survey.”

It is because the research is based on house-to-house surveys that the death toll is higher than Iraq Body Count which cites over 48,693 violent civilian deaths post 2003 invasion, its fatalities culled from deaths reported in the media. Daniel Davies disparages this figure remarking that “If you go out and ask 12,000 people whether a family member has died and get reports of 300 deaths from violence, then that is not consistent with there being only 60,000 deaths from violence in a country of 26 million. It is not even nearly consistent.” John Zogby is just as forceful, “I don’t think that there’s anybody in my business who responsibly believes that 30,000 to 40,000 or 45,000 Iraqis have been killed since March of 2003.”

Carrying out door-to-door survey records deaths that are typically overlooked when sought by other means in wartime situations, according to Les Robert, who co-authored the Lancet report.

“We have gone and looked at every recent war we can find, and only in Bosnia did all governmental statistics add up to even one-fifth of the true death toll. And in Bosnia, the rate was 30 or 40 percent, with huge support for surveillance activities from the UN.”

Furthermore, he notes that in the last year of Saddam Hussein’s reign, only about one-third of all deaths were recorded at morgues and hospitals through the official govt. surveillance network. He asks if this is what it was like when things were good, what must it be like now? We know from previous wars that casualties are grossly under-reported.

Kirsty Wark interviews Les Roberts

One of the arguments that has arisen is just where are the bodies buried, if 655,000 people have died where is the evidence?

Juan Cole explains that “First of all, Iraqi Muslims don’t believe in embalming or open casket funerals days later. They believe that the body should be buried by sunset the day of death, in a plain wooden box. So there is no reason to expect them to take the body to the morgue.”

Why are the number of Iraqi deaths so difficult to pin down? Christian Science Monitor’s Dan Murphy says

The short answer is that much of the country is too dangerous for researchers or government officials to travel in search of accurate statistics. The best tally would come from counting every death certificate issued in the country in the three years before and three years since the invasion. But there is no central reporting mechanism for this in the country.

The research in Iraq was carried out in about 50 neighborhoods spread around Iraq that were picked at random. Les Roberts says

… each time we went, we knocked on 40 doors and asked people, “Who lived here on the first of January, 2002?” and “Who lived here today?” And we asked, “Had anyone been born or died in between?” And on those occasions, when people said someone die, we said, “Well, how did they die?” And we sort of wrote down the details: when, how old they were, what was the cause of death. And when it was violence, we asked, “Well, who did the killing? How exactly did it happen? What kind of weapon was used?” And at the end of the interview, when no one knew this was coming, we asked most of the time for a death certificate. And 92% of the time, people walked back into their houses and could produce a death certificate. So we are quite sure people didn’t make this up.

Expecting the media to fully account for all the dead is completely unrealistic, while house-to-house surveys are the only possible way we can with any certainty determine how many people have died in Iraq. Western journalists are clustered in 5 cities; this in a country with about 90 major towns and cities, so most of what they report in the media will come from these areas. Then, we only have to recall how Fallujah was sealed off from the outside world prior to the coalition turkey shoot. Afterwards, the press (except for the embedded type) were barred from entering Are we ever going to know how many died there? To this day, no official body count exists.

No one is going to be shocked that politicians like Howard remain vague on details of the assessments and reports on Iraqi fatalities, but it must come as a surprise to most that General George W. Casey, the top American military commander in Iraq, is unable to remember precisely which reports he has seen. He admits that he has not bothered to read the Lancet Report (.pdf) but lambasts that ” That 650,000 number seems way, way beyond any number that I have seen. I’ve not seen a number higher than 50,000. And so I don’t give it that much credibility at all.” It seems he did not read the Lancet 2004 report which extrapolated a figure of 100,000 plus. I want to see his and Howard’s assessments, I want to examine the methodologies used to reach the official Bush figure of 30,000. I would also like to see which surveys Blair is quoting when he insists that 400,000 Iraqis are buried in mass graves in Iraq.

Attempts to attack the reports methodology are not backed up with facts or arguments and remain non-existent. Critics can dismiss the report as lacking credibility, knowing that the media will not challenge them directly and assist by whitewashing the entire affair. For the time being it seems the warmongers are getting away with it.

Les Roberts on Democracy Now explains that the methodology used in Iraq is the standard used to determine mortality in war torn countries like Kosovo and Afghanistan. “Most ironically,” he said, “the US government has been spending millions of dollars per year… to train NGOs and UN workers to do cluster surveys to measure mortality in times of wars and disasters.”

Finally, the question this research asks us to ponder is “have coalition efforts to “liberate” Iraq been worth it?” For Iraqis, the people whose views on this subject matter, the answer is a resounding “no.” This report is a critique of the coalition’s work in Iraq. If it was unclear before why 71% of Iraqis want the coalition out of Iraq, or why the Iraqi perception is that things have got worse, this report will have clarified matters.

The number of people dying in Iraq has continued to escalate. While the proportion of deaths ascribed to coalition forces has fallen in 2006, it still remains responsible for the largest share of known deaths (31%). Gunfire remains the most common cause of death, although deaths from car bombing have increased. Factor into this the destruction of infrastructure, hospitals, clinics, water and electricity supplies and the future looks bleak for Iraq.

No good has come out of the occupation of Iraq so far. To rebuild their society, Iraqis need security and stability and as long as the coalition remains, the violence and deaths will continue to hamper their efforts to draw a line under the illegal invasion and occupation and move on. It is time for the troops to go home.