Prove them wrong

October 12, 2006

In the fall of 2004, just before the U.S. elections, a survey by epidemiologists under the direction of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health found that about 100,000 more Iraqis had died in the 15 months following the American invasion than would normally have been expected. When their report was published in the respected British medical journal The Lancet, it was met with incredulity. The number of deaths was way higher than any other estimate. Even critics of the war were wary of citing the report, in case its results were later shown to be fundamentally flawed.

But in the two years since, for all the bluster of Washington-based experts on the war, no one has offered a credible statistical refutation of the methods used by the Hopkins team. And now comes a new report, using the same well-accepted methods of household surveys and extrapolation, which finds the toll of extra deaths since the outbreak of the war at 655,000, of which about 600,000 were violent deaths. It finds, in accordance with other reports, that the death rate has moved sharply upward in the past year - that, in fact, the rate of violent death has roughly doubled in each year since the war began.

"In Iraq, as with other conflicts, civilians bear the consequences of warfare," said Dr. Gilbert Burnham, the lead author of the study and co-director of the Center for Refugee and Disaster Response at the school of public health. Using Iraqi doctors to go house to house in randomly selected neighborhoods across the country, asking about any deaths that had occurred - and employing a larger sample than in 2004 - the survey's authors confirmed their original figure for the initial 15-month period of the war and expressed guarded confidence in the new, much larger, number. In about 80 percent of the households reporting the death of a resident, a death certificate was produced.

The report notes that flows of refugees within Iraq may have skewed the results somewhat, because they were weighted according to estimated population in each region, but suggests that this would not have had a dramatic effect on the outcome.

More bluster came out of Washington yesterday in response. But in our view, the Hopkins study stands until someone knocks it down. We hope someone does - because the thought of 600,000 deaths attributable to the violence unleashed by this misbegotten U.S. invasion is sickening - but we fear the facts will someday speak for themselves.

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