January 10, 2008

Violent Deaths in Iraq: The Numbers Debate Continues

If you're reading U.S. newspapers, it's tough to find the Iraq and Afghanistan stories for all the articles on the election. There's a lot of silly stuff being said, with this quote perhaps being Abu Muqawama's favorite for today:

"There is less certainty now about who the Republican front-runner is now than there was a year ago," Republican pollster Neil Newhouse said of the GOP campaign. "The race is just as wide-open as it was a year ago."

Um, if there's less certainty now, Neil, doesn't that mean the race is even more wide-open than it was a year ago? Just asking.

Anyway, aside from the election coverage, there are two articles from today's Washington Post worth highlighting. The first is an article on a new study of violent deaths in Iraq that alleges the death count is lower than previously thought and much lower than the ridiculous Johns Hopkins/Lancet study we alluded to in a post a few days ago.

A new survey estimates that 151,000 Iraqis died from violence in the three years following the U.S.-led invasion of the country. Roughly 9 out of 10 of those deaths were a consequence of U.S. military operations, insurgent attacks and sectarian warfare.

The survey, conducted by the Iraqi government and the World Health Organization, also found a 60 percent increase in nonviolent deaths -- from such causes as childhood infections and kidney failure -- during the period. The results, which will be published in the New England Journal of Medicine at the end of the month, are the latest of several widely divergent and controversial estimates of mortality attributed to the Iraq war.

The three-year toll of violent deaths calculated in the survey is one-quarter the size of that found in a smaller survey by Iraqi and Johns Hopkins University researchers published in the journal Lancet in 2006.

(Read the rest of the article here.)

The same friend of Abu Muqawama who called attention to the National Journal article on the Lancet study has also been kind enough to pass along the IFHS/WHO study in .pdf form, though Abu Muqawama has not yet read it. Abu Muqawama's friend writes:

The study covers the exact same period as the second Johns Hopkins/Lancet study (i.e., through June 2006). The IFHS/WHO study took several steps to adjust for possible undercounting and ultimately found 151,000 excess violent deaths for this period -- a truly horrific number, albeit four times lower than the Lancet. The survey sample size is considerably bigger than the Lancet study and the geographic distribution and trends related to violent deaths generally conform to other non-Lancet estimates.
Although the IFHS/WHO study states that its numbers are three times higher than estimates provided by Iraq Body Count (IBC), the actual difference is closer to two. Like the Lancet, the violent deaths recorded in the IFHS/WHO study do not distinguish between civilians/noncombatants and combatants. The IBC total, which includes only civilians/noncombatants, through June 2006 (the period of both the IFHS/WHO and Lancet studies) was 48,000. However, estimates of combatant fatalities (including estimates of Iraqi army killed during the invasion from the Project on Defense Alternatives, insurgents deaths reported by the U.S. military, and ISF deaths since the end of the invasion reported in the Brookings Iraq Index) for the same period total 26,000. Thus, IBC + combatant deaths = 74,000. If we assume similar ratios in the IFHS/WHO study, that would suggest about 98,000 civilian deaths through June 2006, suggesting that IBC is only catching about half the civilian deaths.

Look, the reason why the Lancet study was so ridiculous is that you don't need to exaggerate the numbers of violent deaths in Iraq for the whole mess to be a tragedy. It's bad enough even when you don't fudge the numbers, folks.

The second article, by the way, is the one by Tom Ricks and Karen De Young on finding Iraqi solutions for Iraq's ills:

From Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker to Army privates and aid workers, officials are expressing their willingness to stand back and help Iraqis develop their own answers. "We try to come up with Iraqi solutions for Iraqi problems," said Stephen Fakan, the leader of a provincial reconstruction team with U.S. troops in Fallujah.

In many cases -- particularly on the political front -- Iraqi solutions bear little resemblance to the ambitious goals for 2007 that Bush laid out in his speech to the nation last Jan. 10.


For some observers, the approach indicates a new realism in Washington, a recognition that long years of grandiose plans drawn from U.S. templates have not worked in Iraq. But others charge that the phrase "Iraqi solutions" implies a cynical U.S. willingness to turn a blind eye to sectarianism, political violence and a wealth of papered-over problems -- if that is the price of getting the United States out of Iraq.

"The new phrasing is both the dawning of reality, and the cynical use of language and common sense to camouflage past errors, hoping to avoid the audit of flawed logic that got us to this point," said a retired British general familiar with the U.S. experience in Iraq, and who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of his current position.

Update: You can now read the full IFHS/WHO report online. (Thanks, CK)

Update II: Bob Bateman's take.