Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Iraq death toll as high as 650,000?

That's what researchers at Johns Hopkins University are saying.

"Deaths are occurring in Iraq now at a rate more than three times that from before" March 2003, said Gilbert Burnham, lead author of the study and co-director of the Bloomberg School's Center for Refugee and Disaster Response, in a statement.

The total exceeds what other groups have found over a similar period, including the Iraq Body Count estimate that between 43,491 and 48,283 died up to Sept. 26.

That's an eye-opening number, especially because Iraq only has a population of about 26 million. Most of those deaths are attributed to violence, but some were credited to Iraq's creaky health-care system, which has deteriorated since the invasion.

But take it with a grain of salt. Such estimates are notoriously difficult to do. In this case they surveyed 1,850 Iraqi households containing 12,801 people. They then extrapolated the results to the entire country. The quality of the estimate depends on how representative the sample was, and how accurate the information received.

The study's authors, using the same methodology, estimated a death toll of 100,000 in 2004. And they acknowledge the potential unreliability of the data:

In accounting for error and bias in the study, the authors acknowledged that "extreme insecurity" in the region restricted the size of survey teams, the number of supervisors and how much time could be spent in each location. Family members might also have misreported deaths and ``large-scale migration'' out of Iraq could have affected overall numbers, the study said.

But I think it's safe to put the number of dead at "lots." And the death rate is substantially higher than it was before the invasion -- three times higher if you take the number at face value. Even if you discount the number substantially, it seems clear that the invasion has not saved Iraqi lives.

People die in war, and the civilian death toll is not necessarily a comment on the justness or the conduct of the war. But in this case it seems that yet another justification for invading -- Saddam's violent repression of his people -- is weakening fast. Because if this was the cure, the cure is apparently worse than the disease.

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