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Death toll survey provokes controversy

[Iraq] Residents believe security will improve when British troops leave Basra. [Date picture taken: 06/25/2006]
Residents believe security will improve when British troops leave Basra. (Afif Sarhan/IRIN)

Researchers from Mustansiriyah University in Baghdad on Sunday backed the results of their controversial survey on the number of civilian deaths in Iraq since the US-led occupation of the country began in 2003.

Conducted by Johns Hopkins University in the US in conjunction with Mustansiriyah University in Iraq, the study was published on 11 October in the Lancet, a respected British medical journal.

The survey contended that more than 600,000 Iraqis have been killed since 2003 as a result of the war – a far higher death toll than other previous estimates.

"Deaths are occurring in Iraq now at a rate more than three times than from before the invasion of March 2003," Dr Gilbert Burnham, lead author of the study, said in a statement.

Burnham added that the estimate was much higher than others because it was derived from a house-to-house survey rather than approaches that depend on body counts or media reports.

Between May and July 2006, the researchers did a “national cross-sectional cluster sample survey of mortality in Iraq”. Fifty clusters were randomly selected from 16 governorates. Each cluster consisted of 40 households.

Information on deaths from 1,849 Iraqi families was gathered and extrapolated into a total figure of deaths up to July 2006.

The survey participants attributed about 31 percent of violent deaths to coalition forces. The survey focussed only on gathering information on violent deaths.

“We can say that the research is more representative because it depended on what families were telling us. But it also shows a different Iraq reality and according to our valuation on the [margin of] error, from that 600,000 people, we are sure that 250,000 have been killed since March 2003,” Barak Ibrahim, a political analyst and professor at Mustansiryiah University, told IRIN. He also participated in the research.

The results of this study have stirred public debate on the real impact of the invasion and occupation of Iraq by coalition forces. The Iraqi and US governments have condemned the report and its methodology as highly inaccurate.

“The toll in the report exceeds reality in an unreasonable way and the report gives inflated numbers in a way that violates all rules of research and the precision required of research institutions,” Ali al-Dabbagh, a government spokesperson, said.

However, Iraqi citizens support the figures and feel that their leaders have been hiding the truth from them, analysts say.

Dying like fish

"Iraqis are dying like fish in a poisoned lake. They are insignificant lives and the numbers of the research just proves that. The Iraqi government wants to hide the reality but it is not necessary because it is very clear now, just proving what we already suspected before," said Muhammad Jaboury, a gold seller at Mansour district in the capital, Baghdad.

The United Nations has expressed surprise at the findings, which are far higher than its own, but has neither discredited or confirmed them yet.

"I was myself really surprised over this very high figure, and I do not know their methodology and how they've reached this," Jan Egeland, the UN’s humanitarian chief, was quoted as saying to the Associated Press on Thursday.

"It is clear that 100 people die from blunt violence every day [in Iraq], probably more than any other place on earth today. How many die beyond that from associated causes is what we do not [know]... and we don't know whether they give the right figure or not.”

Egeland went on to say that he was aware of "many, many cases where there is underreporting" of casualties, which could explain the vast difference between the Lancet study and other reports that put the number of deaths in the tens of thousands.

The study made mention of the fact that there were likely to be many more thousands of deaths caused indirectly by the war but were not included in its survey.

“Aside from violence, insufficient water supplies, non-functional sewerage, and restricted electricity supply also create health hazards. A deteriorating health service with insecure access and the flight of health professionals adds further risks," reads a section of the survey.

"People displaced by the on-going sectarian violence add to the number of vulnerable individuals. In many conflicts, these indirect causes have accounted for most civilian deaths," it added.

Ibrahim said that the mortality rate in Iraq has risen from about 5.5 people per 1,000 per year before 2003 to 19.8 deaths per 1,000 people in June this year. This would include all causes of death, and not just violent deaths.

This compares to mortality rates in Iraq’s neighbouring countries - Jordan, Syria and Iran - of 2.6, 4.9 and 5.5 deaths per 1,000 respectively.

The study comes at a sensitive time for the US and Iraqi governments. The US administration is under pressure to evaluate its strategy in Iraq and how long it is prepared to keep its forces there, while the Iraqi government is under pressure to take action against the militias behind sectarian killings.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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