Dahr Jamail: Learning to Count: The Dead in Iraq


Richard Moore


     Learning to Count: The Dead in Iraq
     By Dahr Jamail and Jeff Pflueger
     t r u t h o u t | Perspective
     Thursday 13 April 2006

I would say 30,000, more or less, have died as a result of the 
initial incursion and the ongoing violence against Iraqis.
- George W. Bush, December 12, 2005, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

     Does it count?

     How many Iraqis have died as the result of the Anglo-American 
invasion and occupation of their country remains an unresolved 
question in the anti-war movement. It is a question the pro-war camp 
avoids. Yet what more important question is there?

     The above quote made by the "compassionate conservative" shows a 
disturbing trend in the corporate media and amongst the spokespersons 
of the current powers that be, to camouflage the true cost of the 
illegal occupation of Iraq - the cost in blood paid by Iraqis. It is 
a trend that ensures that the enormity of the atrocity goes unnoticed.

     Mr. Bush has cited a figure which is obviously taken from the 
popular anti-war web site Iraq Body Count (IBC), which proudly refers 
to its work on its home page as "The worldwide update of reported 
civilian deaths in the Iraq war and occupation." This project 
estimates a minimum and maximum death count, which as of April 12 had 
the minimum number of Iraqi dead at 34,030 and the maximum at 38,164. 
We shall provide a brief description of their biased and flawed 
methodology after looking at the true level of casualties in Iraq.

     We begin with a more accurate number provided by the British 
medical journal The Lancet on October 29, 2004. The published results 
of their survey "Mortality before and after the 2003 invasion of 
Iraq: cluster sample survey" stated, "Making conservative 
assumptions, we think about 100,000 excess deaths, or more have 
happened since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Violence accounted for most 
of the excess deaths and air strikes from coalition forces accounted 
for most violent deaths." The report also added that "Most 
individuals reportedly killed by coalition forces were women and 
children," and that "Eighty-four percent of the deaths were reported 
to be caused by the actions of Coalition forces."

     The report, whose findings have been strongly criticized, not 
surprisingly, by pro-war camps as well as, surprisingly, by 
researchers at Iraq Body Count, has been backed by established, 
credible sources.

     Not long after the Lancet released their findings, on November 
19, 2004, the Financial Times wrote: "This survey technique has been 
criticized as flawed, but the sampling method has been used by the 
same team in Darfur in Sudan and in the eastern Congo and produced 
credible results. An official at the World Health Organization said 
the Iraqi study 'is very much in the league that the other studies 
are in.'"

     The lead author of the Lancet report, Les Roberts, reported more 
recently on February 8, 2006, that there may be as many as 300,000 
Iraqi civilian deaths. One of the world's top epidemiologists who 
lectures at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Roberts 
has also worked for the World Health Organization and the 
International Rescue Committee.

     Further underscoring these results from the Lancet report were 
comments made by Bradley Woodruff, a medical epidemiologist at the US 
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who was quoted in the 
Chronicle of Higher Education on January 27, 2005: "Les has used, and 
consistently uses, the best possible methodology." The article 
continues, "Indeed, the United Nations and the State Department have 
cited mortality numbers compiled by Mr. Roberts on previous conflicts 
as fact - and have acted on those results. (He) has studied mortality 
caused by war since 1992, having done surveys in locations including 
Bosnia, Congo, and Rwanda. His three surveys in Congo for the 
International Rescue Committee, a nongovernmental humanitarian 
organization, in which he used methods akin to those of his Iraq 
study, received a great deal of attention. 'Tony Blair and Colin 
Powell have quoted those results time and time again without any 
question as to the precision or validity,' he says."

     In an interview on Democracy Now! on December 14, 2005, Roberts, 
when discussing why the figure from his report was too low stated 
that it excluded Fallujah so as not to skew the survey, and said, 
"And so, those who attacked us did not attack us for our methods. In 
fact, I think, if you read the reviews in the Wall Street Journal or 
The Economist, of what we did, the scientific community is quite 
soundly behind our approach. The criticism is of the imprecision. But 
realize the imprecision is: Was it 100,000 or was it 200,000? The 
question wasn't: Was it only 30 or 40 [thousand]? There's no chance 
it could have been only 30 or 40 [thousand]."

     The staggering level of violence and death one of these authors 
has seen on the ground in Iraq certainly backs Roberts's statements 
and those of other journalists, like veteran Middle East 
correspondent Robert Fisk, who writes for the Independent. In an 
article on December 30, 2005, Fisk wrote: "We do not even know - are 
not allowed to know - how many of them have died. We know that 1,100 
Iraqis died by violence in Baghdad in July alone ... But how many 
died in the other cities of Iraq, in Mosul and Kirkuk and Irbil, and 
in Amara and Fallujah and Ramadi and Najaf and Kerbala and Basra? 
Three thousand in July? Or four thousand? And if those projections 
are accurate, we are talking about 36,000 or 48,000 over the year - 
which makes that projected post-April 2003 figure of 100,000 dead, 
which Blair ridiculed, rather conservative, doesn't it?"

     This is also backed up by an update on March 30th for a MedAct 
report on the impact of the Iraq war provided by Kingston Reif.

     Addressing the comments made by Bush regarding "30,000, more or 
less" dead Iraqis, Reif writes, "This is almost exactly the same as 
figures kept by Iraq Body Count." His report takes issue with IBC as 
well as Iraqi officials as it continues: "The problem with estimates 
provided by Iraqi officials and Iraq Body Count is that they only 
include those deaths that have resulted directly from violence. A 
much more comprehensive nationwide survey of all causes of mortality 
in Iraq was published in the Lancet in late October 2004 ... Any 
attempt to gauge mortality in the midst of a conflict will be marked 
by a degree of uncertainty, but what should be beyond dispute is that 
the Lancet study is based on sound methodology. Yet in 2005 this 
continued to be questioned in the press [and later by IBC]. It is 
interesting that Roberts used nearly identical sampling techniques to 
study mortality in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in 
2000, and that U.S. and British officials have quoted these findings 
without question in speeches condemning the killing in this case. 
Meanwhile, innocent Iraqis are continuing to be killed and wounded at 
an alarming rate. According to one recent estimate, nearly 800 were 
killed in January 2006, making it the deadliest month since September 

     Noam Chomsky writes about the body count controversy in his 
latest book, Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on 
Democracy. Says Chomsky: "The estimates of Iraq Body Count are based 
on media reports, and are therefore surely well below the actual 
numbers. The Lancet study estimating 100,000 probable deaths by 
October 2004 elicited enough comment in England for the government to 
issue an embarrassing denial, but in the United States virtual 
silence prevailed." Chomsky goes on to add that "On conservative 
assumptions, it would be ... accurate to state ... that "as few as 
100,000" died."

Other Studies Worthy of Mention

     An Iraqi humanitarian group headed by Dr. Hatim Al-Alwani and 
affiliated with the political party of Interim President Ghazi 
Al-Yawir released its report on July 12, 2005, making it the most 
recent survey to date. The group, Iraqiyun, counted 128,000 actual 
violent deaths and specified that it included only deaths confirmed 
by relatives, omitting the large numbers of people who have simply 
disappeared without trace amid the ongoing bloodletting of Iraq.

     Another group, the People's Kifah, organized hundreds of Iraqi 
academics and volunteers who conducted a survey in coordination "with 
grave-diggers across Iraq," and who also "obtained information from 
hospitals and spoke to thousands of witnesses who saw incidents in 
which Iraqi civilians were killed by U.S. fire." The project was 
abandoned when one of their researchers was captured by Kurdish 
militiamen, handed over to US forces and never seen again. 
Nevertheless, after less than two months' work, the group documented 
a minimum of 37,000 violent civilian deaths prior to October 2003.

     One survey, aside from figures from the US-controlled Iraq 
Ministry of Health, posted figures which correlate with those from 
IBC. The Iraq Living Conditions Survey, conducted by a Ministry under 
the US Coalition Provisional Authority in April and May of 2004, 
cited 24,000 "war deaths." The survey has been cited as credible 
simply because it was published by the UN Development Program, 
despite the fact that the designer of the survey, a Norwegian, stated 
that the number was certainly an underestimate. Over half the deaths 
reported in this survey were in southern Iraq, which suggests that it 
logged deaths caused by the initial invasion rather than the bloody 
aftermath as most of the other surveys note. In addition, this survey 
is now nearly two years out of date. The most violent last two years 
of the occupation have not been covered.

The Other War

     "You cannot wage a war without rumors, without media, without 
propaganda. Any military planner who plans for a war, if he doesn't 
put media/propaganda on top of his agenda, he's a bad military." 
(Samir Khader, Senior Producer at the al-Jazeera Satellite Television 

     Unprecedented access to information makes the Iraq information 
war to win minds unparalleled in history and nearly as intense as the 
battles being fought on the ground in Baghdad and Fallujah. Specific 
battles in any war can be located in time and space. For instance, 
the US defeat in Fallujah in April 2004 and the largely undocumented 
battle of Baghdad in April 2003. So too can the battles of the Iraq 
Information War be located by time and theme. Currently, of all of 
the information battles being waged, none is perhaps as important as 
the counting of Iraqi civilian deaths at the hands of coalition 
forces. It is in this context that all received information on the 
Iraq war (including the present piece) should be interpreted.

     Predictably, the US government has identified the number of 
civilian casualties in Iraq as a vital front in the war of 
information, and their public relations efforts to minimize the body 
count has been largely successful in the US. The Center for Media and 
Democracy , a US-based public relations and media watchdog 
organization, recently awarded the Bush administration and the US 
corporate media with the "2005 Silver Falsies Award" for not counting 
the dead in Iraq.

Iraq Body Count Web Site

     When President Bush recently spoke of 30,000 civilians killed in 
Iraq, his press secretary stated that he was citing "published 
reports." What he was probably citing was Iraq Body Count.

     Others conveniently misuse the IBC figure, like the Herald Sun, 
the largest selling newspaper in Australia, in a March 22nd editorial 
which reads, "In the three years since the war's start, as many as 
37,800 Iraqi civilians are reckoned to have died in fighting, most 
now killed by Islamists. That figure comes from Iraq Body Count, a 
much-quoted Left-wing Internet project that has been criticized for 
including in its count Iraqis killed in robberies, 'celebratory gun 
fire,' or road accidents with military vehicles. In other words, its 
count tends to the high side."

     IBC began with the dual goals of research and aggressive web 
marketing. According to John Sloboda, the founder of IBC, "Our 
motivations for starting the work were political but from a 
humanitarian more than ideological motive. We abhor the invasion and 
occupation, and our primary reason for abhorring it is its cost in 
human life lost, injury and trauma caused, and lives ruined."

     It is important to mention here that Iraq Body Count figures are 
not intended as an estimate of total deaths. The site's stated agenda 
is to record only war-related violent deaths that have been reported 
by at least two approved international media sources, at any given 
time. This generates a record that is accepted by the media that 
publishes these reports in the first place. IBC acknowledges that 
thousands of deaths go unreported in its data base and has maintained 
a steady distance from politicians and the media misrepresenting its 
figures as an actual estimate of deaths. The web site's "minimum" 
number now stands at about 34,000.

     Critics have been quick to point to problems in the IBC research. 
Sheldon Rampton, who is the Director of Research at the Center for 
Media and Democracy has criticized the methodology. "[IBC uses] what 
medical researchers call 'passive research.' Unlike 'active 
research,' which seeks to accurately count or estimate ALL 
casualties, passive research relies on other sources, in this 
instance, published newspaper reports. The fact that passive research 
produces undercounts is well-understood within the community of 
medical researchers." But Sheldon sees merit in IBC's work because he 
feels at least "they have made an effort to recognize that Iraqi 
casualties are worth counting."

     Another valid criticism of IBC relates to its exclusively Western 
media sources, which tend to be large media organizations that do not 
report the day to day violence that occurs in Iraq. IBC requires a 
source to be an "English language site," excluding at the outset more 
than 500 Arabic and Persian news outlets that the people of the 
Middle East rely on for information.

     IBC completely ignores sources that are likely to contain more 
information about the daily violence in Iraq. This, despite the fact 
that there exist organizations such as MidEastWire and LinkTV's 
Peabody Award Winning Mosaic to translate and make available news 
from the Middle East translated into English.

     IBC has obtained an enormous exposure on the Internet through 
aggressive and clever web marketing. Today, if one searches the word 
"Iraq" in Google IBC's website is the second result, only after the 
CIA World Fact Book.

     Its marketing success is owed in part to the clever and 
ubiquitous IBC counter. Visitors to the IBC web site are encouraged 
to download a running counter that they can place on their own site. 
Rankings in search engines such as Google depend on how many 
important and related web sites link to any given site. IBC's ranking 
is so high because there are a multitude of web sites with 
Iraq-related content that link to IBC through the IBC counter.

The IBC Shift

     At its inception, the IBC cause was quickly embraced by the peace 
movement and despised by war supporters. IBC data represented at the 
time the only compiled and readily available information about 
civilian casualties.

     By the time George Bush cited IBC's data in his famous public 
statement that "30,000, more or less, have died as a result of the 
initial incursion and the ongoing violence against Iraqis," IBC had 
gone from being an important part of anti-war propaganda to a vital 
agent of war propaganda, by virtue of vastly understating the actual 
number of civilians killed in the Iraq war. IBC data became the tool 
of choice for the Bush administration and the US corporate media to 
refute the growing public awareness that the Iraq war was in fact 
killing well over a hundred thousand innocent Iraqi men, women and 

     For the Bush administration and its well paid public relations 
firms, the greatest coup was perhaps that not only do the IBC numbers 
vastly low-ball the actual civilian casualties in Iraq, but that IBC 
appears to be an anti-war site! The Bush administration could not 
have paid to manufacture better propaganda.

     Disturbingly, thus far we do not notice any serious effort on the 
part of IBC to reverse this trend apart from the small step of 
changing its counter title from "Civilian casualties update" to 
"Reported civilian deaths," ostensibly to clarify what the data is 
and what it was not. It also posted a statement on its web site about 
how Mr. Bush misused its data.

     John Sloboda, founder of IBC, refused to comment on specific 
questions we asked about how IBC planned to correct the misuse of its 
data for pro-war propaganda.

  Count or Else

     Sheldon Rampton, with the Center for Media and Democracy, who 
authored Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush's 
War in Iraq, wrote to us: "The war in Iraq is occurring under 
conditions in which tallying the dead is easier than it was during 
the U.S. Civil War, the First and Second World Wars, or for that 
matter any war that has been fought during the past two centuries. If 
it was possible to compile casualty figures during those wars, there 
is no good reason why it cannot be done in Iraq. The real reason that 
it's not happening is that the people who are responsible for the war 
don't want the dead to become a topic of public discussion."

     But if the number of innocent Iraqi men, women and children 
killed in the war is to become a topic of public discussion, the 
people responsible for the war want to minimize the count. The story 
of Iraq Body Count provides perhaps the most fascinating saga of this 
battle of statistics and propaganda.

     We want to emphasize that this critique is not against the stated 
purpose of IBC. Their excellent work, particularly during the 
invasion and early days of the occupation, was extremely important. 
We are, however, alarmed at their apparent lack of concern at the way 
their information is being usurped by the pro-war camp to manipulate 
public opinion and minimize the catastrophe the failed US occupation 
has become for Iraqis. The authors of this piece submit that if, as 
it claims, IBC is truly a humanitarian research project armed for 
greater impact with an aggressive and sophisticated marketing system, 
it must not allow its data to be misused and misrepresented for 
pro-war propaganda campaigns.

     If IBC cannot prevent the misuse of its data, it would be better 
for it to remove its web site and counters from the Internet 
permanently. It must then limit itself to objective scholarly 
research of the English media without sophisticated marketing 

     Dahr Jamail is an independent journalist who spent over eight 
months reporting from occupied Iraq. He presented evidence of US war 
crimes in Iraq at the International Commission of Inquiry on Crimes 
Against Humanity Committed by the Bush Administration in New York 
City in January 2006. He writes regularly for TruthOut, Inter Press 
Service, Asia Times and TomDispatch, and maintains his own web site, 


     Jeff Pflueger is Dahr Jamail's electronic publicist. His web site 
is jeffpflueger.com.


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