Monday, March 06, 2006

Under-reporting of British casualties in Iraq: Analysis published in the Lancet

The highly renowned medical research journal, The Lancet, has published an analysis of government under-reporting of British casualties in the Iraq war. The research, conducted by a Professor Sheila Bird of the MRC Biostatistics Unit at Cambridge, illustrates that casualty figures are almost certain to be much higher than stated by John Reid, the Minister of Defence, and argues that the failure to properly count UK military casualties in Iraq must end.

In the absence of credible official figures, she first looks at estimations of casualties constructed using the deaths:total casualty ratio technique used by ourselves in our published estimates. However, rather than using previous published research data she chooses to go with data from the Iraq Casualty Count site and breaks down the casualty figures according to the different phases of the conflict.

She then points out some valid concerns with using the ratio estimation method and asks:

Against such statistical imperatives for improved accountability, who or what thwarts the UK's competent compilation and dissemination of statistics by which to monitor death rates and casualty rates for UK military personnel deployed to Iraq?

As she tries to collate the necessary data herself part of the answer starts to appear. Amazingly, the Defence Analytical Services Agency (DASA) could not even provide her with monthly or quarterly numbers (to the nearest 100) of military personnel deployed to Iraq, because, they claim, the figures are not held electronically. However, these data were in fact later revealed in Hansards as a written answer on Feb 13, 2006 to Jeremy Corbyn, a Member of Parliament who had asked the Secretary of State for Defence what the total strength of UK forces in Iraq had been.

Despite her efforts, no information on total casualties, as distinct from fatalities, was gained, and the rest of her Lancet letter is devoted to looking at differences in mortality rates at different phases of the conflict.

The apparent failure of the MOD to monitor casualty rates is truly breathtaking. While such apparent gross negligence appears unlikely to be the result of actual incompetence, the political convenience of shrouding casualty figures in a constructed fog of war is obvious.

Our attempts to gain information on casualties via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) appears now to be of even greater importance following the publication of these research findings. Whilst our approach has also been temporarily thwarted, this is not an issue that is going to go away. In principle, the tools exist within our democratic system to find this out - we intend to keep digging.

For background see:-

11th Sep, 2005: MOD figures reveal one thousand British casualties in Iraq to date

Feb 20, 2006: British casualties in Iraq: MOD stalls the release of figures under the freedom of information act

Feb 24th 2006: MOD letter reveals John Reid issued misleading figures on British casualties in Iraq

Update: From June 2007 we are now maintaining a regularly updated graphical analysis of British casualties - from both the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan