- Nov 22, 2003
The statistics made headlines all over the world when they were published in The Lancet in October last year. More than 650,000 Iraqis one in 40 of the population had died as a result of the American-led invasion in 2003. The vast majority of these excess deaths (deaths over and above what would have been expected in the absence of the occupation) were violent. The victims, both civilians and combatants, had fallen prey to airstrikes, car bombs and gunfire.
Body counts in conflict zones are assumed to be ballpark hospitals, record offices and mortuaries rarely operate smoothly in war but this was ten times any other estimate. Iraq Body Count, an antiwar web-based charity that monitors news sources, put the civilian death toll for the same period at just under 50,000, broadly similar to that estimated by the United Nations Development Agency.
The implication of the Lancet study, which involved Iraqi doctors knocking on doors and asking residents about recent deaths in the household, was that Iraqis were being killed on an horrific scale. The controversy has deepened rather than evaporated. Several academics have tried to find out how the Lancet study was conducted; none regards their queries as having been addressed satisfactorily. Researchers contacted by The Times talk of unreturned e-mails or phone calls, or of being sent information that raises fresh doubts.
Iraq Body Count says there is considerable cause for scepticism and has complained that its figures had been misleadingly cited in the The Lancet as supporting evidence.
One critic is Professor Michael Spagat, a statistician from Royal Holloway College, University of London. He and colleagues at Oxford University point to the possibility of main street bias that people living near major thoroughfares are more at risk from car bombs and other urban menaces. Thus, the figures arrived at were likely to exceed the true number. The Lancet study authors initially told The Times that there was no main street bias and later amended their reply to no evidence of a main street bias.