Study puts Iraqi death toll at 151,000

Estimate about 25% of figure released by Johns Hopkins

January 10, 2008|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,SUN REPORTER

The Iraq government and World Health Organization estimate that 151,000 Iraqis died violent deaths during the first three years of the war there - about 25 percent of the toll that Johns Hopkins researchers suggested earlier.

Even so, the new estimate is several times higher than one made by an independent group called Iraq Body Count, underscoring the difficulty of assessing the wartime carnage. The new figure represents civilians and combatants, with civilians accounting for most of the fatalities.

The authors of the study, released yesterday by The New England Journal of Medicine, said deaths were "massive" and part of "an ongoing humanitarian crisis."

They also urged the public to approach any discussion of casualties with caution. While arguing that theirs was the best assessment to date, researchers said they were hampered by shifting populations and their inability to enter some violent neighborhoods.

They dedicated their final report to one of the researchers, Louay Hakki Rasheed, who was killed in August on his way to work in Baghdad. He was the deputy director of an Iraqi statistical and information agency.

"Assessment of the death toll in conflict situations is extremely difficult and household survey results have to be interpreted with caution," said Mohamed Ali, a World Health Organization statistician and one of the authors. The study will be published in the Jan. 31 edition of The New England Journal of Medicine.

The Pentagon does not count Iraqi fatalities, but yesterday a spokesman appeared to support the new estimate, as opposed to earlier figures. "The Iraqi Ministry of Health would be in a better position, with all its records, to provide more accurate information on deaths in Iraq," he said.

Researchers affiliated with the Iraqi government, including the Iraq and Kurdistan health ministries, surveyed 9,345 households in nearly 1,000 neighborhoods and villages across the country. The World Health Organization provided technical assistance.

Family members in those homes reported that 1,325 people had died between March 2003 and June 2006, a number that researchers extrapolated to reach their estimate of total deaths across the nation of 27 million people. Acknowledging the uncertainty, authors said the actual number could lie between 104,000 and 223,000.

In an earlier study, researchers with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health used a similar technique, although they canvassed only a fifth as many households.

That study, which estimated 600,000 deaths, sparked a debate. Although it provided no estimate of its own, the Pentagon said the Hopkins figure was inflated, while many war opponents said Hopkins provided the best evidence of the war's human toll.

Lester Roberts, an epidemiologist who co-directed the Hopkins study, said he doubted that the new study would cause the public to revise their opinion of the war.

"I think this is advancing the dialogue, and that is good," Roberts said. "For the Iraqi Ministry of Health to say that by June 2006 there were 150,000 deaths is closing the gulf between the Western press version of what has happened and what's been reported by the Middle Eastern press."

Still, Roberts said the Hopkins estimate is probably closer to the truth. Household members were able to confirm with death certificates 90 percent of the fatalities they reported. Also, that survey was conducted by Iraqi doctors, who may have aroused less suspicion than the government officials who knocked on doors in the latest study.

Roberts also questioned the government's finding that about the same number of people died during each of the three years. "From every source I've seen - deaths in the Baghdad morgue, Pentagon reports of violent incidents, burials in the city of Najaf - 2005 and 2006 were far worse," he said.

Iraq Body Count, a group that maintains a Web-based database, estimated 47,600 deaths over the same time period.

jonathan.bor@baltsun.com

Sun reporter David Wood contributed to this article.

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