By: E&P Staff and The Associated Press
A new Johns Hopkins study contends nearly 655,000 Iraqis have died because of the war, suggesting a far higher death toll than other estimates. This far exceeds normal media counts and is more than 20 times the estimate of 30,000 civilian deaths that President Bush gave in a speech in December.
Asked at a press conference today about the new study, Bush said he was sticking with his 30,000 figure, saying that the new study was not “credible” and adding that his top general in Iraq also disputed it. Then he added, referring to Iraq, “I am, you know, amazed that this is a society which so wants to be free that they?re willing to ? you know, that there?s a level of violence that they tolerate.”
In the new study, researchers attempt to calculate how many more Iraqis have died since March 2003 than one would expect without the war. Their conclusion, based on interviews of households and not a body count, is that about 600,000 died from violence, mostly gunfire. They also found a small increase in deaths from other causes like heart disease and cancer.
“Deaths are occurring in Iraq now at a rate more than three times that from before the invasion of March 2003,” Dr. Gilbert Burnham, lead author of the study, said in a statement.
The study by Burnham, of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and others is to be published Thursday on the Web site of The Lancet, a medical journal.
An accurate count of Iraqi deaths has been difficult to obtain, and at least one expert was skeptical of the new findings.
“The Department of Defense always regrets the loss of any innocent life in Iraq or anywhere else,” said Lt. Col. Mark Ballesteros. “The coalition takes enormous precautions to prevent civilian deaths and injuries.”
Of the total 655,000 estimated “excess deaths,” 601,000 resulted from violence and the rest from disease and other causes, according to the study. “This is about 500 unexpected violent deaths per day throughout the country,” The Washington Post observed today.
The timing of the survey’s release, just a few weeks before the U.S. congressional elections, led one expert to says it is “way too high,” said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington. He criticized the way the estimate was derived and noted that the results were released shortly before the Nov. 7 election. “This is not analysis, this is politics,” Cordesman said.
The work updates an earlier Johns Hopkins study that was released just before the November 2005 presidential election. At the time, the lead researcher, Les Roberts of Hopkins, said the timing was deliberate. Many of the same researchers were involved in the latest estimate.
Speaking of the new study, Burnham said the estimate was much higher than others because it was derived from a house-to-house survey rather than approaches that depend on body counts or media reports.
A private group called Iraqi Body Count, for example, says it has recorded about 44,000 to 49,000 civilian Iraqi deaths. But it notes that those totals are based on media reports, which it says probably overlook “many if not most civilian casualties.”
For Burnham’s study, researchers gathered data from a sample of 1,849 Iraqi households with a total of 12,801 residents from late May to early July. That sample was used to extrapolate the total figure. The estimate deals with deaths up to July.
The survey participants attributed about 31 percent of violent deaths to coalition forces.
Accurate death tolls have been difficult to obtain ever since the Iraq conflict began in March 2003. When top Iraqi political officials cite death numbers, they often refuse to say where the numbers came from.
The Health Ministry, which tallies civilian deaths, relies on reports from government hospitals and morgues. The Interior Ministry compiles its figures from police stations, while the Defense Ministry reports deaths only among army soldiers and insurgents killed in combat.
The United Nations keeps its own count, based largely on reports from the Baghdad morgue and the Health Ministry.
Ronald Waldman, an epidemiologist at Columbia University who worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for many years, called the survey method “tried and true,” and added, speaking to The Washington Post, that “this is the best estimate of mortality we have.”
Sarah Leah Whitson, an official of Human Rights Watch in New York, told the Post, “We have no reason to question the findings or the accuracy” of the survey.
“I expect that people will be surprised by these figures,” she said. “I think it is very important that, rather than questioning them, people realize there is very, very little reliable data coming out of Iraq.”
The interviewers asked for death certificates 87 percent of the time — and more than 90 percent of these households produced certificates.
According to the survey results, the Post noted, Iraq’s mortality rate in the year before the invasion was 5.5 deaths per 1,000 people; in the post-invasion period it was 13.3 deaths per 1,000 people per year. The difference between these rates was used to calculate “excess deaths.”
“Of the 629 deaths reported, 87 percent occurred after the invasion,” the Post related. “A little more than 75 percent of the dead were men, with a greater male preponderance after the invasion. For violent post-invasion deaths, the male-to-female ratio was 10-to-1, with most victims between 15 and 44 years old.
“Gunshot wounds caused 56 percent of violent deaths, with car bombs and other explosions causing 14 percent, according to the survey results. Of the violent deaths that occurred after the invasion, 31 percent were caused by coalition forces or airstrikes, the respondents said.”
Related E&P column by Greg Mitchell: Will Media Finally Count the Dead in Iraq?