April 07, 2008

Maybe Petraeus Should Count the Iraqi Dead

Here's a novel idea for a Q&A topic during General Petraeus's testimony before Congress this week: how about an estimate of Iraqi civilian deaths?

It is nothing short of astounding that this question is officially ignored by the Bush Administration. When the Johns Hopkins/Lancet study was published, indicating an estimate through 2006 of 600,000 violent deaths, Bush dismissed the estimate as the product of "flawed methodology," without, however, offering an estimate of his own. It's the official position of the Pentagon that they "don't do body counts." This does not stop other organizations from trying, such as the World Health Organization's recent effort which will be published later this month in the New England Journal of Medicine (http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2008/pr02/en/index.html). Using the same cluster sampling approach as the Lancet study, but with greater access to households (interviewing 23 times as many), the WHO study estimated 151,000 violent deaths and an overall death rate from all causes (illness, etc.) twice as high as before the invasion. As with the earlier Lancet study, the mortality figures covered only the first three years of the five-year occupation, and allowed the possibility that the true figure could be as high as 223,000, citing the difficulty posed by the refugee situation in Iraq. To wit, many families may have left Iraq (there are presently two million such refugees) after a violent death without responding to any survey. Since most of 2007 was also extremely violent, a fair extrapolation of the median figure of 151,000 would produce a current death count of about 200,000.

The Iraq Body Count (IBC) places the death toll for civilians at about 90,000 to date. The methodology used does not rely on statistical extrapolation but on morgue and medical records, and other official sources, and the IBC admits this probably results in an underestimate in a fractured and disorganized country like present-day Iraq. But here's the deal: no responsible group has ever come up with a figure as low as the Bush Administration's self-serving, wild-eyed guess of 50,000 (given when they have actually been pressed to come up with something "unofficial"), a number it apparently consoles itself with. How, indeed, can the Bushies credibly cling to their lowball number in the face of a count of actual dead people by the IBC? The utter contempt for the consequences of occupation is probably among the factors that support the popularity of anti-U.S. figures like Muqtada al-Sadr. We should have the common decency to figure out how many people are dead because we're there.

So maybe some "maverick," like John McCain, should simply pose the question to General Petraeus. What do you think of these various studies that place the death toll at figures no less than twice the Pentagon's guess, and in other cases four to twelve times higher? If one of the arguments for staying is that a "blood bath" will ensue if we leave "irresponsibly," shouldn't we try to determine whether a blood bath is already underway by virtue of being there? Is it actually going to get a lot worse if we leave? And how do we know if we never bother to count? It does seem, at the very least, like a data point essential to figuring the question out.

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