New Estimates Suggest U.S. War Led to Nearly Half a Million Iraqi Deaths

For every three people killed by violence in Iraq, two died as a result of conflict-crippled health care, water, and transportation systems, a new study finds.

Dozens of empty coffins are carried by Iraqi security forces in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, south of Baghdad, during a ceremony held on Oct. 7, 2008 to commemorate Iraqi mass graves victims.
National Journal
Marina Koren
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Marina Koren
Oct. 15, 2013, 1:08 p.m.

Es­tim­at­ing cas­u­al­ties of war is a dif­fi­cult sci­ence. Ex­act counts are nearly im­possible to achieve, es­pe­cially in areas where vi­ol­ent con­flict con­tin­ues long after the last of for­eign troops have with­drawn. De­term­in­ing a death toll for Ir­aqi ci­vil­ians dur­ing the eight-year U.S.-led oc­cu­pa­tion has proven es­pe­cially chal­len­ging. Mul­tiple at­tempts by dif­fer­ent or­gan­iz­a­tions have covered only a few years of the war, and the res­ult­ing tal­lies range from as low as just over 100,000 to as high as 600,000.

The latest es­tim­ates, de­tailed in a study pub­lished Tues­day in the journ­al PLOS Medi­cine, come from an in­vest­ig­a­tion in­to the total num­ber of Ir­aqi deaths between 2003 and 2011 by the Uni­versity of Wash­ing­ton De­part­ment of Glob­al Health. Nearly 40 per­cent of deaths in Ir­aq that oc­curred in that time peri­od were a res­ult of the U.S. con­flict, re­search­ers say, put­ting the death toll at about 461,000.

Re­search­ers vis­ited 2,000 ran­domly se­lec­ted homes throughout the Middle East­ern coun­try. They asked adults to re­count births and deaths with­in their im­me­di­ate and ex­ten­ded fam­ily since 2001. Through this can­vassing, the re­search­ers es­tim­ated 405,000 deaths could be at­trib­uted to the war through mid-2011. They made up the re­main­ing sev­er­al thou­sands in their fi­nal num­ber by es­tim­at­ing mor­tal­ity rates for about 2 mil­lion people who fled the coun­try dur­ing the con­flict.

Re­search­ers say 60 per­cent of the 461,000 deaths are dir­ectly at­trib­uted to vi­ol­ence, such as gun­shots (62 per­cent), car bombs (12 per­cent), and oth­er ex­plo­sions (9 per­cent). Non­vi­ol­ent deaths were at­trib­uted to health prob­lems stem­ming from crippled health care, clean wa­ter, nu­tri­tion, and trans­port­a­tion sys­tems. For every three people killed by vi­ol­ence, two died as a res­ult of crum­bling in­fra­struc­ture that sup­ports these areas, ac­cord­ing to the study.

The sur­vey, however, like the oth­ers that came be­fore it, is not without its lim­it­a­tions. The re­search­ers state their cas­u­alty es­tim­ate with 95 per­cent cer­tainty. The ac­tu­al num­ber, they write, could be as low as 48,000 or as high as 751,000. The re­search­ers point to the af­ter­math of the 2010 earth­quake in Haiti as an­oth­er ex­ample of a situ­ation in which wildly dis­sim­il­ar cas­u­alty counts were un­avoid­able. In the years since, the death toll for the nat­ur­al dis­aster has been es­tim­ated to be any­where between 46,000 and 316,000, re­veal­ing the prob­lem­at­ic prac­tice of cal­cu­lat­ing mor­tal­ity.

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