Death Counter Explanation Page

What Just Foreign Policy’s Iraqi Death Estimator Is and Is Not

Since researchers at Johns Hopkins estimated that 601,000 violent Iraqi deaths were attributable to the U.S.-led invasion as of July 2006, it necessarily does not include Iraqis who have been killed since then. We would like to update this number both to provide a more relevant day-to-day estimate of the Iraqi dead and to emphasize that the human tragedy mounts each day this brutal war continues.

This daily estimate is a rough estimate. It is not scientific; for that, another study must be conducted. However, absent such a study, we think this constitutes a best estimate of violent Iraqi deaths that is certainly more reliable than widely cited numbers that, often for political reasons, ignore the findings of scientifically sound demographic studies.

In January 2008, a poll of Iraqis confirmed that the number dead is likely to be over a million. The prestigious British polling firm, Opinion Research Business, estimated that 1,033,000 Iraqis had been killed violently since the U.S. invasion as of August 2007.

The Significance of the Iraqi Death Estimate

The Lancet study already demonstrated that, as of July 2006, the deaths caused by the U.S. invasion of Iraq rivaled the death toll of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Our update suggests that it has now surpassed even high estimates of deaths in Rwanda. (Note that this does not even include Iraqi deaths attributable to the 1991 Gulf War or the sanctions imposed on the population between the two wars.)

Realization of the daunting scale of the death and suffering inflicted on Iraqis should add urgency to efforts to end the occupation and to prevent such “pre-emptive” invasions or “interventions” in the future. The American people need to rein in their government and create a new kind of foreign policy, one based on cooperation, law, and diplomacy rather than violence and aggression.

The Rationale for Just Foreign Policy’s Iraqi Death Estimator

Iraq is in a state of extreme upheaval that makes it very difficult to record deaths. The occupiers and the central government they established do not control much of the country. The occupying forces have made it clear that they “do not do body counts.” The Iraqi government releases regular estimates of deaths in the country, but these are unreliable. In early 2006, the Iraqi Minister of Health publicly estimated between 40,000 and 50,000 violent Iraqi deaths since the invasion. In October 2006, the same week a study was published in the Lancet estimating 600,000 deaths, the Minister tripled his estimate, saying there had been 150,000 deaths. Can this be anything but political?

The media in any country only detect a fraction of all violent deaths. In Iraq, the media is limited to shrinking zones of safe passage. While press reports of violence in Iraq are important and often heroically obtained, they cannot provide a complete picture of all deaths in that war-torn country.

In a country such as Iraq, where sufficient reporting mechanisms do not exist, there is a scientifically accepted way to measure demographics including death rate: a cluster survey. Cluster surveys provide reliable demographic information the wake of natural disasters, wars and famines. Cluster surveys give us the data about deaths in Darfur, accepted for example by the U.S. government as one basis for its charge of genocide. They are used by U.N. agencies charged with disaster and famine relief.

In Iraq, there have been two scientifically rigorous cluster surveys conducted since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. The first, published in the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet, estimated that 100,000 excess Iraqi deaths had resulted from the invasion as of September 2004. The second survey, also published in The Lancet, updated that estimate through July 2006. Due to an escalating mortality rate, the researchers estimated that over 650,000 Iraqis had died who would not have died had the death rate remained at pre-invasion levels. Roughly 601,000 of those excess deaths were due to violence.

As with all statistical methods, the Lancet surveys come with a margin of error, as do opinion polls, for example. In the second survey, the researchers were 95 percent certain that there were between 426,000 and 794,000 excess violent deaths from March 2003 to July 2006. 601,000 is the most likely number of excess violent deaths. It is this number that our Estimator updates.

As of January 2008, a poll from the British polling firm Opinion Research Business contributed to our understanding of the Iraqi death toll, confirming the likelihood that over a million have died with an estimate of 1.2 million deaths.

How Just Foreign Policy’s Iraqi Death Estimate is Calculated

For the Iraqi Death Estimator, Just Foreign Policy accepts the Lancet estimate of 601,000 violent Iraqi deaths attributable to the U.S. invasion and occupation as of July 2006.

To update this number, we need to obtain a rate of how quickly deaths are mounting in Iraq. For this purpose, the Iraq Body Count (IBC) provides the most reliable, frequently updated database of deaths in Iraq. (The IBC also usefully provides a database of all violent Iraqi deaths demonstrable through press reports and thus relatively undeniable.) The IBC provides a maximum and minimum. We opted to use the midpoint between the two for our calculation.

We multiply the Lancet number as of July 2006 by the ratio of current IBC deaths divided by IBC deaths as of July 1, 2006 (43,394).

The formula used is:

Just Foreign Policy estimate = (Lancet estimate as of July 2006) * ( (Current IBC Deaths) / (IBC Deaths as of July 1, 2006) )

Use of the Iraq Body Count Database

The Iraq Body Count (IBC) records all violent Iraqi civilian deaths recorded in at least two press reports. Our Estimator assumes that the IBC’s method, while it does not capture all Iraqi deaths as shown by the Lancet studies, captures roughly the same percentage of deaths over time. This means, for example, that if the violent death rate in Iraq doubled over a given period, IBC would count approximately twice the number of deaths per day over that period than it did previously. If the death rate fell by half, IBC would count roughly half the number of deaths per day.

It is worth noting that, to the extent that the English-language media covers less of the violence in Iraq over time – if they are progressively less capable of receiving accurate reports from outside the Green Zone or certain sectors of Baghdad, for example – then to that extent, the violent death rate derived from IBC will be lower than the actual death rate that would be picked up by a scientific, statistical survey. This would tend to make the Just Foreign Policy Estimate lower.

This actually seems to have been the case from 2004 to 2006. In September 2004, the scientific estimate from the Lancet was about 9 times the IBC death estimate. By July 2006, the Lancet estimate was about 12 times the IBC death estimate, suggesting that IBC was picking up a smaller percentage of total deaths.

This combination of the IBC and the Lancet is not perfect, although we think it the best way of obtaining a rough estimate using existing tallies while awaiting another scientifically-based number. For example, the IBC, unlike the Lancet and the Just Foreign Policy Estimator, seeks to exclude “combatant” deaths from their tally. This could lead to differences between the IBC rate of increase and the actual rate of increase in overall Iraqi deaths, but it is not clear in which direction this difference goes.

Since our interest is simply in providing a rough estimate – rather than a scientifically accurate estimate – of current Iraqi deaths, we can accept the possible inaccuracies produced by combining the Lancet and IBC.