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The Impact of Iraqi Civilian Death Estimates


The number of Iraqis who have died violently since the U.S. invasion in 2003 remains a mystery. A report last week that the toll may be more than 600,000 has sparked controversy, but it has also highlighted the scale of the bloodshed in Iraq, as NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.

TOM GJELTEN: The headline in last week's report by researchers from the Johns Hopkins University School of Health, an estimated 600,000 Iraqis killed, was certainly an attention grabber. This week, there were questions about that figure. The Johns Hopkins team suggested that 56 percent of the Iraqi deaths were from gunshots; of those, 31 percent at the hands of U.S. and other foreign troops in Iraq. This would mean U.S. and foreign troops shooting and killing on average 87 Iraqis each and every day over a three and a half year period.


Mr. JEFFREY WHITE (Former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst): It doesn't meet the plausibility test.

GJELTEN: Jeffrey White, a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst, is among those doubting the Johns Hopkins figure.

Mr. WHITE: Nothing we know about the war in Iraq looks like that.

GJELTEN: The Johns Hopkins team got its estimate by surveying Iraqis, asking family members whether anyone in their household had died as a result of the war, counting only those for whom there were death certificates and then extrapolating from those findings to the country as a whole.

But the resulting death estimate was more than 10 times what the Iraqi government had reported. It would mean more than half million Iraqi deaths have been certified by some authority but not reported by the government.


Some researchers have criticized the Johns Hopkins surveyors for not using a large enough sample or taking sufficient steps to insure it was representative of the entire Iraqi population.

The controversy, however, has at least focused new attention on the issue of just how many Iraqis are dying.

Brian Katulis, who has done survey work in Iraq for the National Democratic Institute, thinks the Johns Hopkins estimate is too high, but he also thinks the Iraqi government's reported death toll is too low.

Mr. BRIAN KUTELOS (Surveyor, National Democratic Institute): Some of the estimates that come out of the Ministry of Health, for instance, from Iraq are centered on Baghdad. Some of it is just incomplete data. This is a very complex situation and difficult for people to get around and get accurate numbers.

GJELTEN: A U.S. intelligence official who closely follows the tabulations believes at least 100,000 Iraqis have been killed since the U.S. invasion.

A state department report issued in April 2003 put the number of Iraqis killed as a result of political violence under Saddam Hussein's rule at about 300,000. But that was over a 23 year period.

Jeffrey White, the former DIA analyst, says the Iraqi death toll in the current conflict in one sense maybe even more alarming.

Mr. WHITE: The violence now is different in the sense that it's more or less a free-for-all. It isn't directed by a central government that's in control of its territory and in control of the ability to use violence. This is competitive violence. Various agents among the Iraqis have the ability to use violence for political purposes, and they're doing that with a will and with abandon.

GJELTEN: One problem is that death tolls can also be used for political purposes. The Washington Post this week, citing a secret United Nations document, reported that the Iraqi prime minister's office has instructed his Health Ministry to stop sharing its death figures with the U.N.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.