‘Wash Post’: Military ‘Cherry-Picking’ Facts to Prove Violence Down in Iraq

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By: E&P Staff

With the “surge” report due next week, the U.S. military’s claim that violence has decreased sharply in Iraq in recent months “has come under scrutiny from many experts within and outside the government, who contend that some of the underlying statistics are questionable and selectively ignore negative trends,” The Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung reveals today.

The Post carries her detailed report on page A16. “Reductions in violence form the centerpiece of the Bush administration’s claim that its war strategy is working,” DeYoung observes. But she adds: “Others who have looked at the full range of U.S. government statistics on violence, however, accuse the military of cherry-picking positive indicators and caution that the numbers — most of which are classified — are often confusing and contradictory. ‘Let’s just say that there are several different sources within the administration on violence, and those sources do not agree,’ Comptroller General David Walker told Congress on Tuesday in releasing a new Government Accountability Office report on Iraq.”

On its front-page, the Post publishes another critical DeYoung assessment, which opens: “Iraq’s army, despite measurable progress, will be unable to take over internal security from U.S. forces in the next 12 to 18 months and ‘cannot yet meaningfully contribute to denying terrorists safe haven,’ according to a report on the Iraqi security forces published today.

“The report, prepared by a commission of retired senior U.S. military officers, describes the 25,000-member Iraqi national police force and the Interior Ministry, which controls it, as riddled with sectarianism and corruption. The ministry, it says, is ‘dysfunctional’ and is ‘a ministry in name only.’ The commission recommended that the national police force be disbanded.”

An excerpt from the “cherry-picking” story, also at www.washingtonpost.com, follows.
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Challenges to how military and intelligence statistics are tallied and used have been a staple of the Iraq war. In its December 2006 report, the bipartisan Iraq Study Group identified “significant underreporting of violence,” noting that “a murder of an Iraqi is not necessarily counted as an attack. If we cannot determine the sources of a sectarian attack, that assault does not make it into the data base.” The report concluded that “good policy is difficult to make when information is systematically collected in a way that minimizes its discrepancy with policy goals.”

Recent estimates by the media, outside groups and some government agencies have called the military’s findings into question. The Associated Press last week counted 1,809 civilian deaths in August, making it the highest monthly total this year, with 27,564 civilians killed overall since the AP began collecting data in April 2005.

The GAO report found that “average number of daily attacks against civilians have remained unchanged from February to July 2007,” a conclusion that the military said was skewed because it did not include dramatic, up-to-date information from August.

Juan R.I. Cole, a Middle East specialist at the University of Michigan who is critical of U.S. policy, said that most independent counts “do not agree with Pentagon estimates about drops in civilian deaths.”

In a letter last week to the leadership of both parties, a group of influential academics and former Clinton administration officials called on Congress to examine “the exact nature and methodology that is being used to track the security situation in Iraq and specifically the assertions that sectarian violence is down.”

The controversy centers as much on what is counted — attacks on civilians vs. attacks on U.S. and Iraqi troops, numbers of attacks vs. numbers of casualties, sectarian vs. intra-sect battles, daily numbers vs. monthly averages — as on the numbers themselves.

The military stopped releasing statistics on civilian deaths in late 2005, saying the news media were taking them out of context.

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