Deaths In The Fog Of War

(AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)
600,000? 655,000? Really?

That's the response from skeptics in the wake of a new report that claims a horrifyingly high number of civilian deaths in Iraq since the 2003 American invasion. According to the New York Times, the study, which is tied to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, "uses samples of casualties from Iraqi households to extrapolate an overall figure of 601,027 Iraqis dead from violence between March 2003 and July 2006."

The margin of error is worth mentioning: Researchers said the true number of deaths could be anywhere from 426,369 to 793,663. The 655,000 figure, which takes into account both deaths from violence and "excess deaths," represents about two and a half percent of Iraq's population.

The figures, based on a survey of 1,849 Iraqi families across Iraq, have some crying fowl. "They're almost certainly way too high," Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington told the Associated Press. "This is not analysis, this is politics."

President Bush also weighed in at his press conference today when he was asked about the study. "I don't consider it a credible report," he said. "Neither does General Casey, neither do Iraqi officials." Bush has estimated the number of civilian deaths to be around 30,000, though he now says only that "a lot of innocent people have lost their life."

It's difficult to get any sense of where the truth lies in all this. Certainly, any news that comes out not long before an election will raise suspicions about the motivations behind it. The study's main author, Gilbert Burnham, says his numbers are so much higher than others because he looked not just at death rates in Baghdad but across Iraq. He also notes that his report is based on surveys of people, not media estimates, which are based largely on what reporters get from officials. There could be something to this: The AP notes that "[a]ccurate 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."

We cannot expect to have a perfectly accurate figure when it comes to civilian deaths in Iraq, thanks to the realities of war and politics and the paucity of reliable statistics coming out of the country. But it is somewhat staggering to think that there are more than 500,000 people who may, or may not, be dead as a result of the war.