One problem is that the people dismissing – or in some cases, rabidly attacking – the results of this study, including governmental officials who, arguably, have an interest in doing so, have offered no other alternative or not even a counter estimate. This is called denial. When you have no hard facts to discredit a scientific study, or worse, if you are forced to resort to absurd arguments, such as “the Iraqis are lying,” or “they interviewed insurgents,” or “the timing to publish this study was to affect American elections,” or “I don’t like the results and they don’t fit into my world view, therefore they have to be false,” it is better for you to just shut up. From the short time I have been here, I am realising that some Americans have a hard time accepting facts that fly against their political persuasions.
Now I am aware that the study is being used here by both sides of the argument in the context of domestic American politics, and that pains me. As if it is different for Iraqis whether 50,000 Iraqis were killed as a result of the war or 600,000. The bottom line is that there is a steady increase in civilian deaths, that the health system is rapidly deteriorating, and that things are clearly not going in the right direction. The people who conducted the survey should be commended for attempting to find out, with the limited methods they had available. On the other hand, the people who are attacking them come across as indifferent to the suffering of Iraqis, especially when they have made no obvious effort to provide a more accurate body count. In fact, it looks like they are reluctant to do this.
In regard to Iraqi governmental officials, it was their responsibility to provide reliable numbers, but when the Ministry of Health and the Baghdad Medico-legal Institute (Baghdad’s main mortuary) is under the control of Sadrists, who have prohibited access to medical records and morgue counts by the press, and who have an interest in manipulating numbers for their own political agendas, I would absolutely question their criticism of this study. And by the way, most cemeteries in Iraq would not accept a body without a death certificate, unless the bodies are buried in mass graves or backyards without reporting them to health authorities (look at this to understand why), which in this case the government would regard them as ‘missing.’ While working in hospitals and health centres in Iraq, it was sometimes my responsibility (when the late-night doctor was unavailable or, in some cases, sleeping) to oversee the checking in of corpses at the hospital and to issue a death certificate indicating the cause of the death. No certificate is issued without a body, and it is required that several copies are kept. IDs of dead people are shredded at the spot and their names are removed from their family’s food ration cards. The Ministry of Health should have access to certificates issued throughout the country over the last 3 years. And both the Defense and Interior ministries have their own counts. Now why isn’t any independent body looking into that information? …
There also seems to be a common misconception here that large parts of the country are stable. In fact, not a day goes by without political and sectarian assassinations all over the south of Iraq, particularly in Basrah and Amara, but they always go unnoticed, except in some local media outlets. The ongoing conflict between political parties and militias to control resources in holy cities and in the oil-rich region of Basrah rarely gets a nod from the media every now and then, simply because there are very few coalition casualties over there. The same with Mosul and Kirkuk, both highly volatile areas. I am yet to see some good coverage on the deadly sectarian warfare in Baquba, northeast of Baghdad, which has the highest rate of unknown corpses dumped on the streets after the capital, and which was about to be announced an Islamic Emirate by the end of Ramadan. There are absolutley no numbers of civilian casualties from Anbar. There is no one to report them and the Iraqi government controls no territory there, while American troops are confined to their bases. And much, much less data from other governorates which give the impression of being ‘stable.’
I have personally witnessed dozens of people killed in my neighbourhood over the last few months (15 people in the nearby vicinity of our house alone, over 4 months), and virtually none of them were mentioned in any media report while I was there. And that was in Baghdad where there is the highest density of journalists and media agencies. Don’t you think this is a common situation all over the country?
I can’t vouch for it 100 percent, but I’ll vouch for it 95 percent, which is as good as it gets in survey research. I know PIPA, the group at the university that conducted the polling in the U.S. I know of the group that — the university that published and conducted the survey on the Iraq side. In fact, we’ve used them ourselves. These are good researchers. I have read their methodology statement. It is a good one and a sound one. …
I don’t think that there’s anybody in my business who responsibly believes that 30,000 to 40,000 or 45,000 Iraqis have been killed since March of 2003. …
And CNN, and my company are others are able to call U.S. elections and European elections with pinpoint precision using a sample of a thousand; 1,800-plus sample in a country like Iraq is more than enough to do the job and to get the ballpark figure that they got here.
I’ve now had an opportunity to read the article and accompanying documentation in The Lancet on the controversial new study that concludes nearly 655,000 Iraqis have died because of the war. My initial skepticism has been replaced by, well . . . non-skeptical anger.
Over the years I’ve been involved in a fair amount of cluster sampling such as that used in the study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and the resulting mortality numbers seem pretty solid to me, if mind blowing.