By ANNA BADKHEN
San Francisco Chronicle
October 17, 2006
The estimated number of deaths in the study, conducted by Johns Hopkins University and published today in the British medical journal Lancet is at least 10 times higher than any previous estimate and suggests that nearly 1 in 40 Iraqis has died over the last 3 1/2 years as a result of the war.
The implications for U.S. policy in Iraq are profound in the view of some analysts.
"If the number of civilian casualties cited in the report is anywhere near the true number, it calls into question the legitimacy of the whole campaign," said Loren Thompson, a defense expert at the Lexington Institute, a national security think tank in Arlington, Va.
The survey, which researchers emphasize is an estimate and not a precise count, gave a wide range of the possible number of Iraqi fatalities, from 426,369 to 793,663. Statistically, the survey concluded, 601,027 is the most probable death toll.
At his news conference on Wednesday, President Bush dismissed the survey, conducted by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Mustansiriya University in Baghdad between May 20 and July 10.
"Six hundred thousand or whatever they guessed at is just, it's not credible," Bush said, and he dismissed the methodology as "pretty well discredited." In December, Bush estimated that 30,000 Iraqis had died in the war. Asked at the news conference what he thinks the number is now, Bush said: "I stand by the figure a lot of innocent people have lost their life."
At a separate Pentagon briefing, Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said that the figure "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."
Iraqi government spokesman Ali Dabbagh said in a statement that "these numbers are far from the truth, and the Iraqi government is making efforts to protect the Iraqi citizens from forces of terror."
The findings of a previous Johns Hopkins study, carried out in 2004 and also published in the Lancet, estimated roughly 100,000 deaths in the first 18 months after the invasion. Those findings carried a large margin of error and also were criticized, in part because of the relatively narrow sampling of about 1,000 families, and in part because the figure was so high.
Anthony Cordesman, a defense expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, dismissed the new numbers. "They're almost certainly way too high," he said, noting that the report was released shortly before the Nov. 7 elections. "This is not analysis, this is politics," Cordesman told the Associated Press.
But Thompson defended the survey, saying that "the research method used ... is a respected tool for calculating fatalities in situations where complete records are unlikely to be available. The survey team in Iraq seems to have obtained considerable documentation to support their conclusions."
The study, funded by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, drew on data obtained by eight Iraqi physicians during a survey of 1,849 Iraqi families - or 12,801 people - in 47 neighborhoods of 18 regions across the entire country.
The researchers said they based the selection of geographical areas on population size, not on the level of violence.
Then they projected the findings to the 26.1 million Iraqis estimated to be living in the survey areas.
The surveyors put Iraq's prewar mortality rate at 5.5 deaths per 1,000 people per year. In the post-invasion period, according to the survey, the rate grew to 13.3 deaths per 1,000 people per year. The surveyors used the difference between these rates to calculate deaths that were not brought on by natural causes. The survey suggests that of more than 650,000 Iraqis who died since 2003, 601,000 were killed since the war began. Polling experts supported the methods used by the surveyors.
"The sampling is solid. The methodology is as good as it gets," said John Zogby, whose Utica, N.Y.-based polling agency, Zogby International, has done several surveys in Iraq since the war began. "It is what people in the statistics business do."
Zogby said similar survey methods have been used to estimate casualty figures in other conflicts, such as Darfur and the Democratic People's Republic of Congo.
Ronald Waldman, an epidemiologist at Columbia University who worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for many years, told the Washington Post the survey method was "tried and true." He said that "this is the best estimate of mortality we have."
Frank Harrell Jr., chairman of the biostatistics department at Vanderbilt University, told the Associated Press the study incorporated "rigorous, well-justified analysis of the data."
The Johns Hopkins' findings are dramatically higher than previous estimates of Iraqi deaths, ranging from the numbers that the United Nations began to compile this year, to a death toll reported by the Internet-based Iraq Body Count (iraqbodycount.net) , which is run by academics and peace activists in Britain and the United States.
Iraq Body Count puts the number of Iraqis killed since March 2003 at no more than 49,000. The Iraq Index, a Brookings Institution study that combines that with recent U.N. statistics, put the number of civilian deaths between May 2003 and Aug. 31, 2006, at 62,000. In June, after several weeks worth of interviews at Iraqi hospitals, morgues and government offices, the Los Angeles Times estimated that civilian deaths had reached 50,000.
Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com
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