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Press Release 10 7 Nov 2004

IBC response to the Lancet study estimating "100,000" Iraqi deaths

Monday 7th November 2004

Some people have asked us why we have not increased our count to 100,000 in the light of the multiple media reports of the recent Lancet study which claims this as a probable and conservative estimate of Iraqi casualties.1

Iraq Body Count does not include casualty estimates or projections in its database. It only includes individual or cumulative deaths as directly reported by the media or tallied by official bodies (for instance, by hospitals, morgues and, in a few cases so far, NGOs), and subsequently reported in the media. In other words, each entry in the Iraq Body Count data base represents deaths which have actually been recorded by appropriate witnesses - not "possible" or even "probable" deaths.

1 Mortality before and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq: cluster sample survey Roberts et al., The Lancet, Nov 2004.

2 Lancet 2004 co-author Richard Garfield, cited in Halloween Tidings from the 'War on Terror' Jim Lobe, IPS News, 29 Oct 2004.

3 Iraq ministry says coalition kills more civilians than insurgents do Nancy A. Youssef, Knight-Ridder/McClatchy Newspapers via Seattle Times, 6 Oct 2004.

The Lancet study's headline figure of "100,000" excess deaths is a probabilistic projection from a small number of reported deaths - most of them from aerial weaponry - in a sample of 988 households to the entire Iraqi population. Only those actual, war-related deaths could be included in our count. Because the researchers did not ask relatives whether the male deaths were military or civilian the civilian proportion in the sample is unknown (despite the Lancet website's front-page headline "100,000 excess civilian deaths after Iraq invasion," the authors clearly state that "many" of the dead in their sample may have been combatants [P.7]). Iraq Body Count only includes reports where there are feasible methods of distinguishing military from civilian deaths (most of the uncertainty that remains in our own count - the difference between our reported Minimum and Maximum - arises from this issue). Our count is purely a civilian count.

One frequently cited misapprehension is that IBC "only can count deaths where journalists are present."2 This is incorrect, and appears to arise from unfamiliarity with the variety of sources which the media may report and IBC has used. These sources include hospital and morgue officials giving totals for specific incidents or time periods, totals which in turn have sometimes been integrated into overall tolls of deaths and injuries for entire regions of Iraq as collated by central agencies such as the Iraqi Health Ministry (see KRT 25th September 2004 3); these are all carefully separated from more "direct" as well as duplicate media reporting before being added to IBC's database. The Lancet's survey data was itself gathered without journalists being present, and yet is widely reported in the press. Were the Lancet study a count and not a projection, it too could after appropriate analysis become part of the IBC database. Little-known but impeccably reported death tolls in fact constitute the larger part of IBC's numbers (as can be seen by sorting IBC's database by size of entry). We believe that such counts - when freely conducted and without official interference - have the potential to far exceed the accuracy and comprehensiveness even of local press reporting. It is after all the job of morgues and hospitals to maintain such records, and not the media's, who simply report their findings.

We have always been quite explicit that our own total is certain to be an underestimate of the true position, because of gaps in reporting or recording. It is no part of our practice, at least as far as our published totals are concerned, to make any prediction or projection about what the "unseen" number of deaths might have been. This total can only be established to our satisfaction by a comprehensive count carried out by the Iraqi government, or other organisation with national or transnational authority.

Others have asked us to comment on whether the Lancet report's headline figure of 100,000 is a credible estimate. At present our resources are focused on our own ongoing work, not assessing the work of others. At an earlier stage, we did indeed provide an assessment of other counting projects,4 to provide what clarity we could for better public understanding of the issues involved. In that instance the projects under review were similar to ours, in that they attempted to amass data on actual deaths (and some of their findings have subsequently been integrated into our own count). Nonetheless, the Lancet's estimate of 100,000 deaths - which is on the scale of the death toll from Hiroshima - has, if it is accurate, such serious implications that we may return to the subject in greater detail in the near future. As of this writing we are more concerned with renewed air and ground attacks on Falluja, which last April left over 800 Iraqis dead, some 600 of them civilians (see previous IBC press release).5

4 Counting the Human Cost, 12 Jun 2003.

5 No Longer Unknowable: Falluja's April Civilian Toll is 600 PR 9, 26 Oct 2004.

6 Over 1,500 violent civilian deaths in occupied Baghdad IBC Press Release 5, 23 Sep 2003.

7 AP: 5,558 Iraqi civilians killed under occupation Daniel Cooney and Omar Sinan, 23 May 2004.

It may already be noted, however, that Iraq Body Count, like the Lancet study, doesn't simply report all deaths in Iraq (people obviously die from various causes all the time) but excess deaths that can be associated directly with the military intervention and occupation of the country. In doing this, and via different paths, both studies have arrived at one conclusion which is not up for serious debate: the number of deaths from violence has skyrocketed since the war was launched (see IBC Press Release September 23rd 2003 6; also AP 24th May 2004 7).

We also recognise the bravery of the investigators who carried out the Lancet survey on the ground, and support the call for larger and more authoritative investigations with the full support of the coalition and other official bodies.

Finally, we reject any attempt, by pro-war governments and others, to minimise the seriousness of deaths so far recorded by comparing them to higher figures, be they of deaths under Saddam's regime, or in other much larger-scale wars. Amnesty International, which criticized and drew attention to the brutality of the Saddam Hussein regime long before the governments which launched the 2003 attack on Iraq, estimated that violent deaths attributable to Saddam's government numbered at most in the hundreds during the years immediately leading up to 2003. Those wishing to make the "more lives ultimately saved" argument will need to make their comparisons with the number of civilians likely to have been killed had Saddam Hussein's reign continued into 2003-2004, not in comparison to the number of deaths for which he was responsible in the 1980s and early 1990s, or to casualty figures during WWII.