Survey: Iraqi deaths higher

Hopkins-designed study says 100,000 civilians died

Prior estimates, 10,000 to 30,000

Brookings defense expert calls data `preposterous'

October 29, 2004|By Jonathan Bor and Tom Bowman | Jonathan Bor and Tom Bowman,SUN STAFF

Researchers who conducted a house-to-house survey of Iraqi families estimated yesterday that at least 100,000 civilians died as a result of the U.S.-led invasion - far more than any previous estimates.

The projection, which could intensify debate over the war as the presidential election draws near, compares with previous estimates of 10,000 to 30,000 Iraqi civilian deaths and drew sharp criticism from one defense analyst

Researchers denied any political motive in the timing of the report, saying it was important to present the data while candidates and the public were focused on the war and its consequences.

FOR THE RECORD - An article yesterday on civilian fatalities in Iraq misstated the country's total population, which is an estimated 24 million.
The Sun regrets the error.

Designed by Johns Hopkins public health scientists and carried out by teams of Iraqi doctors, the study attributed most of the deaths to military action by coalition forces.

The findings appeared yesterday on the Web site of The Lancet, a British medical journal.

Though scientists found no evidence of improper conduct by U.S.-led troops, they said the dead civilians - mostly women and children - were largely the unintended victims of airstrikes, shellings and other coalition actions against enemy forces.

"We're probably talking about buildings collapsing on people, the direct effects of explosions, burns and shrapnel," Dr. Gilbert Burnham, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said in an interview yesterday.

In arriving at their estimate of 100,000 civilian deaths, the authors said they set aside figures from the heavily contested city of Fallujah because they were afraid the numbers - much higher than in any other place they studied - could skew the overall results.

Michael O'Hanlon, a defense analyst for the Brookings Institution, a liberal-leaning think tank in Washington, disputed the findings of the Lancet study, terming them "preposterous and politically driven."

"I think that number is way, way, way too high," said O'Hanlon. For the past year and a half, the Brookings Institution has been working on the question and has calculated that fewer than 10,000 Iraqi civilians have died from acts of war since March 2003, when the U.S.-led coalition invaded.

The Brookings figures, which are continually updated, are based on morgue statistics in Iraq as well as numbers provided by the Iraqi Ministry of Health and news reports, he said.

Burnham said he was not surprised by the criticism, noting that the study is the first "active surveillance" of civilian casualties in Iraq.

Calling such studies the "gold standard" among health researchers, he said they're conducted by knocking on doors and asking residents what happened rather than relying on official reports and news accounts.

Burnham said he and his colleagues wanted only to put the information "on the table" during a critical period of public scrutiny. The Lancet makes its own publication decisions and might have been charged with a cover-up had it waited until after the election, he said.

"We must say we are shocked by how many of these deaths are related to the conflict itself and to the methods of warfare in densely populated urban areas," Burnham added.

The survey was conducted in September, and its appearance this week represents an extraordinarily fast turnaround by a leading medical publication, a fact noted by its editor.

"Their paper has been extensively peer-reviewed, revised, edited and fast-tracked to publication because of its importance to the evolving security situation in Iraq," Richard Horton, the journal's editor, wrote in an accompanying editorial.

Coalition leaders, Horton wrote, undoubtedly planned troop deployments and strategies to minimize civilian casualties - but apparently failed.

"With the admitted benefit of hindsight and from a purely public health perspective, it is clear that whatever planning did take place was grievously in error," Horton wrote, adding: "Democratic imperialism has led to more deaths not fewer."

U.S. officials have never issued an estimate of Iraqi civilian or military deaths. In response to the study, the Pentagon released a statement yesterday saying the Iraq invasion "has been prosecuted in the most precise fashion of any conflict in the history of modern warfare."

"There is no accurate way to validate the estimate of civilian casualties by this or any other organization. ... The loss of any innocent lives is a tragedy, something the Iraqi security forces and the multinational force painstakingly work to avoid."

To reach their estimate, researchers randomly selected 33 neighborhood clusters across Iraq, with each cluster consisting of 30 households. The clusters were spaced closer or farther apart depending on population density in a given area.

Teams consisting of three people or more asked families a series of questions. The most important was how many people had died in the 14 months before and in the 17 months after the invasion - and the circumstances of their deaths.

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