The uncertain toll in Iraq

A new study has concluded that there have been hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilian deaths since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. The governments of Iraq, the United States and Great Britain have challenged the results.

Yet even if the results are gross exaggerations, the numbers deserve more attention. In the struggle to stabilize Iraq, winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people is the key to success. Ignoring or downplaying the casualties suffered by civilians is a dangerous tactic, uncomfortable and alarming though the subject may be.

While there has been considerable attention to the death toll among soldiers fighting in Iraq, the civilian casualties have been largely overlooked. In the early days of the fighting, coalition forces officials maintained that they did not have accurate figures and were reluctant to make estimates. Finally, last December U.S. President George W. Bush said 30,000 civilians had been killed in the fighting, although it was unclear how he arrived at that number.

Iraq Body Count, an Internet Web site run by academics and peace activists, estimates that there have been between 43,900 and 48,780 civilian deaths; they use two media reports to corroborate their findings, emphasizing that their estimate is likely to be low.

Last month, a team of Iraqi and U.S. researchers published a study in the Lancet, a leading British medical journal. They estimated that 650,000 more people had died in Iraq since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein than would have occurred without the invasion. The U.S. and British governments immediately rejected those numbers as inflated. Mr. Bush flatly dismissed the conclusions as “not credible.”

If only that were so. The authors are respected health-care professionals from leading institutions. They have no ax to grind, and the study was peer-reviewed before publication, as is always the case with major scientific journals. Questions have been raised about the study’s methodology. The authors used a “cluster sample survey” technique, which involves identification of a representative sample that is used to project figures for the country as a whole. It is a time-proven technique often used in public-health research.

In this case, 1,849 households in 50 neighborhoods throughout Iraq were questioned in door-to-door interviews. They were asked about deaths before the invasion and after. Researchers found that death rates tripled following the invasion. While they concede their numbers are not exact, they estimate that there is a 95 percent certainty that as few as 400,000 and as many as 900,000 have died “as a consequence of the war.”

Those figures are deeply disturbing, as is the idea that the uncertainty is so great. The inability to estimate a death toll of this size is a remarkable admission of failure on the part of both the security and health-care sectors in Iraq.

More alarming has been the Baghdad government’s response. In addition to dismissing the study’s conclusions, it has been reported that the Prime Minister’s Office has instructed the Health Ministry to stop providing mortality figures on civilian war dead to the United Nations.

In June, the U.N. human-rights office in Baghdad estimated that more than 100 people were dying each day in Iraq. The numbers climbed until August, with a total of more than 6,600 people killed during July and August.

Apparently, Iraqi officials worried that the data was not correct. The Health Ministry is controlled by officials linked to the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and there were fears the numbers released were being inflated for political purposes. Of course, blocking their release is just as political.

The civilian death count in Iraq is inevitably a political number. But the possibility that such a number will be used — or misused — for political purposes should not be used as an excuse to avoid discovering what the real figure is. Indifference to the suffering of ordinary Iraqis is a far greater abuse of power and a potentially fatal blow to the government in Baghdad and its supporters.

The unwillingness to find the true number of fatalities is another way of saying that the Iraqi people do not matter but that the people who speak for them, or can mobilize them, do matter. This is an abhorrent form of politics and smacks of the machinations carried out by the Saddam Hussein regime. At its very foundation, democracy is about concern for ordinary citizens, not elites.

Iraq’s leaders must end this policy. They must put the plight of ordinary Iraqi citizens at the very top of their concerns and end the coverups.