Friday, August 10, 2007

Iraqi Casualty Monitor: One million deaths since the US invasion?

Just Foreign Policy have published an estimate showing that over one million Iraqis have died as a result of the US invasion Iraq. But just how reliable is that figure?
The extent of the death toll resulting from the US-led invasion of Iraq and the following occupation and insurgency, has been the subject of ongoing debate. Ever since 2003, scientific discussion, heated debate in the media, and political spin and manipulation, have all been prominent as various stakeholders have strived to define a figure for the human cost to the Iraqi people.

Today, a regularly updated estimate for Iraqi deaths crossed the staggering threshold of one million. But how can this be known, and to what extent should this estimate be taken seriously given that it is so much higher than other, more widely publicised figures?

Just Foreign Policy Iraqi Death Estimator
The first important point in looking at different estimates is to bear in mind that they are not all trying to to measure the same thing. Iraq Body Count for example, which monitors media reports to derive its estimate, is concerned with only civilian deaths and so will exclude deaths of members of the armed forces, militia, resistance, or terrorists. Other bodies have attempted to estimate the entire death toll including all categories of people. Therefore, even if their figures were representative of the entire population there is no reason to suppose that the estimates would be the same.

One would hope of course that reliable figures would be available from the official bodies of the responsible governments and military. Indeed, it is these bodies that have a responsibility to monitor casualties to ensure their compliance with international law.
  • The various ministries of the Iraqi Government have come up with estimates of doubtful validity.
  • The US and UK military will keep records of estimates of civilian and combatant deaths caused by there own forces. However, they often deny the existence of these records and when they are released appear to be partial and incomplete.
  • The US and UK governments appear to depend on a number of sources for their public estimates, and appear to have no current figures that can be accessed.
Other sources of potential sources of information include:
  • The UN has been endeavouring to maintain a database on civilian casualties but have been thwarted by the Iraqi government which has denied them access to its data. Their estimates are therefore inevitably incomplete.
  • The Red Cross and Red Crescent, while decrying the burden on the civilian population has issued no public estimates of the number involved.
So, the bottom line is that it is damn difficult to reach any kind of a consensus figure for the death toll using any of the above sources. Deriving an estimate for total casualties (fatalities and injuries) would be even more challenging.1

However, these types of difficulties are not at all unique to Iraq. Similar constraints apply in many conflicts around the world and this situation has led epidemiologists and relief agencies to develop standardised methods that can be used in surveys to generate a reliable estimate of fatalities. These cluster survey techniques have been applied in two national surveys in Iraq, and the results were published in the Lancet medical journal in 2004 and October 2006.

The results from the two surveys are remarkably consistent, a fact that lends reassurance to the validity of the measurements. The trend in the mortality increase that they found in their 2006 paper is also consistent with increases in other estimates of mortality from Iraq Body Count and the US Department of Defence. This comparison is shown in the figure below, reproduced from the 2006 Lancet paper by Burnham et al.

More recently, Just Foreign Policy have utilised these different data sets by combining the data for the 2006 Lancet survey with the trend in casualties observed by Iraq Body Count. This melding of data and approaches has led to the creation of a regularly updated estimate of current Iraqi deaths shown above.

The formula used to derive the estimate is:
Just Foreign Policy estimate = (Lancet estimate as of July 2006) * ( (Current IBC Deaths) / (IBC Deaths as of July 1, 2006) )
Is this a valid estimate? Well the answer you would get would, of course, be very dependent on who answered the question. In the opinion of this blog this estimate is currently the best available for total deaths during the current Iraq war.

The real figure for Iraqi deaths may of course be somewhat different but is almost certainly of the same order of magnitude. It's a horrifying thought that two of the world's most heralded democracies have allowed a catastrophe of these dimensions to occur.

1 For further discussion of the problems in involved in tracking civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan see But who's counting?