On the 1,000th day of the U.S. war on Iraq, we look at a subject that usually receives little attention — the Iraqi civilian death toll since the war began. We speak with Dr. Les Roberts, the lead researcher of a study released last year on the number of deaths in Iraq, which put the toll at more than 100,000. [includes rush transcript]
President Bush was asked about the Iraqi civilian death toll on Monday following his speech at the Philadelphia World Affairs Council.
- Q: Since the inception of the Iraqi war, I’d like to know the approximate total of Iraqis who have been killed. And by Iraqis I include civilians, military, police, insurgents, translators.
- THE PRESIDENT: How many Iraqi citizens have died in this war? I would say 30,000, more or less, have died as a result of the initial incursion and the ongoing violence against Iraqis. We’ve lost about 2,140 of our own troops in Iraq.
President Bush’s comments took many by surprise because the administration has said little over the past 1,000 days on how many Iraqis have died because of the war and occupation. Since Bush spoke on Monday, several officials denied the government was keeping a tally on Iraqi deaths. White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said that Bush was “citing public estimates,” not a government-produced figure. Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Barry Venable said there is no official tally of civilian deaths in Iraq. However, Venable said the U.S. military does collect data on deaths from insurgent attacks. If the government did keep close tabs on Iraqi civilian deaths, they might likely find the number is far higher than 30,000.
Last year the prestigious British medical journal the Lancet published a study estimating that over 100,000 Iraqi civilians had died because of the war. The study determined that the risk of death by violence for civilians in Iraq is now 58 times higher than before the US-led invasion. We are joined in Washington by the lead researcher of that report.
- Les Roberts, co-author of a 2004 study on civilian mortality in Iraq since the invasion. He is an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
JUAN GONZALEZ: We are talking with Sami Rousuli from Karbala, with the Christian Peacemaker Teams. We also have on the phone, from Beirut, independent journalist, Robert Fisk, but we would also like to on this 1,000th day of the U.S. war in Iraq, look back at the subject that usually receives little attention, the Iraqi civilian death toll since the war began. President Bush was asked about this on Monday following his speech at the Philadelphia World Affairs Council.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Since the inception of the Iraq war, I’d like to know the approximate total of Iraqis who have been killed, and by Iraqis, I include civilians, military, police, insurgents, translators.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: How many Iraqi citizens have died in this war? I would say 30,000, more or less, have died as a result of the initial incursion and the ongoing violence against Iraqis. We have lost about 2,140 of our own troops in Iraq.
JUAN GONZALEZ: President Bush’s comments took many by surprise, because the administration has said little over the past 1,000 days on how many Iraqis that have died because of the war and occupation. Since Bush spoke on Monday, several officials denied the government was keeping a tally on Iraqi deaths. White House Press Secretary said that Bush was, quote, “citing public estimates, not a government-produced figure.” Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Barry Venable said, “There’s no official tally of civilian deaths in Iraq.” However, Venable said the U.S. military does collect data on deaths from insurgent attacks. If the government did keep close tabs on Iraqi civilian deaths, they might likely find the number is far higher than 30,000. Last year, the prominent British medical journal, Lancet, published a study estimating that over 100,000 Iraqi civilians had died because of the war. The study determined that the risk of death by violence for civilians in Iraq is now 58 times higher than before the U.S. invasion. We are joined in Washington by the lead researcher of that report, Dr. Les Roberts, who is an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
LES ROBERTS: Good morning, Juan.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Welcome. Your reaction to the President finally saying something about the civilian deaths, and his numbers?
LES ROBERTS: I have a couple of reactions. I guess, politically, he has to downplay this issue, but for him to say a number, that of the eight estimates out there is probably the lowest one, really is not a strategic thing to do in terms of winning hearts and minds in Iraq. Secondly, I’m even more struck that here a year after our study came out, the first time the President has been asked about this was not by a reporter, but by someone from the public when he took a question.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And have you continued to do follow-ups on your initial study?
LES ROBERTS: Actually, we haven’t. We just did our nationwide survey where we visited about 1,000 houses, mostly in September of last year, and asked them had anyone in their household died since January 1, 2002. So, there we had about 14 months before the invasion and about 18 months after. And we could compare in each household the death rate before and after. And since that time, we have not followed up. Iraqi Body Count has actually found a higher rate per day after than before, and another surveillance system, which has since gone defunct for lack of funding, called the NGO Coordinating Committee in Iraq, found something similar, but as far as us following up on the ground, no, that hasn’t happened.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Your study, when it came out, came under enormous attack, especially from conservative forces here in the United States. Do you still stand by the methodology, and could you talk a little bit about that methodology?
LES ROBERTS: Sure. What we did was the standard way of estimating malnutrition and immunization coverage and mortality in the developing world. We got a list of how many people lived in what cities and towns and villages. We randomly allocated 33 points, in which we would go visit, and we went out to the villages or towns and picked up that point, and visited the 30 houses close. We’ve got 33 neighborhoods. We visited 30 houses in each one. And we asked people: Who lives here now? Who lived here the first of January, 2002? Had anyone been born? Had anyone died? And at the end of the interview, if they had reported someone dead, on a sub-sample, we asked, can you show us the death certificate? And about 82% of the time, they could do that. And we found that the death rate after the invasion was far, far higher than before.
The criticism of our report isn’t in the method. It isn’t in the validity of our conclusion that mortality is up. It’s in the imprecision. And the reason that the imprecision was so high was in part because one of the randomly picked neighborhoods was in the city of Fallujah, and while in most neighborhoods about 2% of the population had died, in Fallujah about a quarter of the population in those houses left, where we knocked on the door, had died. And as a result, we had this really huge death toll attributable to Fallujah, less than that in our other 32 neighborhoods. So, what we did was we said, okay. We’re going to set that Fallujah number aside and report that we think in all of those other neighborhoods, essentially, outside of Anbar Province, we think 100,000 are dead. And we’re only 90% sure it’s more than 44,000. So there’s a distribution around that, and it’s possible it could have been 90, and it’s possible it could have been 110. But we said, well, when you consider then Anbar Province, as well, the chances that it’s under 100,000 are very, very low.
That was a little nuance, I think, for the press to pick it up as a sound bite. And so, those who attacked us did not attack us for our methods. In fact, I think, if you read the reviews in the Wall Street Journal or The Economist, of what we did, the scientific community is quite soundly behind our approach. The criticism is of the imprecision. But realize the imprecision is: Was it 100,000 or was it 200,000? The question wasn’t: Was it only 30 or 40? There’s no chance it could have been only 30 or 40.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Robert Fisk, you were saying earlier in the show that by your actual body counts in Baghdad —
ROBERT FISK: My body count, this was the official, secret, of course, Ministry of Health figures in Baghdad for July alone, just in Baghdad, was 1,100 dead. This was the highest figure for the city of Baghdad since records began. And these were figures which the British and American advisers to the Iraqi Ministry of Health have forbidden the ministry to give out to journalists. And it’s just because I go often to the mortuaries, and physically count the dead in the heat and the dirt, that I know the mortuary officials well enough for them to trust me by showing me the screen figures.
And in July, it is a fact that 1,100 Iraqis were — died by violence in just July. I was there in August. So on one Monday morning, there were nine bodies brought to the mortuary. Death by violence by 9:00 a.m. At 12:00, there were 26, including a young woman who was brought in with her hands tied behind her back, shot three times in the brain and a baby shot in the face. These are real figures. These are real people. This is not extrapolation. This is the reality.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And I’d like to ask Sami Rousuli, as we try to wrap up this segment, from Karbala, your thoughts here on the eve of pretty much of the election that is going to occur?
SAMI ROUSULI: I’m sorry, the question again?
JUAN GONZALEZ: Your thoughts as the Iraqi civilians prepare for an election this week?
SAMI ROUSULI: Yes, indeed. They are excited just to hear anything they might see a light at the end of the tunnel. They have been doing this since the beginning of this year, but now with this election, which will be held tomorrow, the new thing about it that, as I indicated, Ayatollah Sistani didn’t prefer any slate [inaudible] and also the Sunnis are participating for the first time in this election, which they are representing between about 25% to 35% of the population.
So, also the Iraqis are anticipating, if this legislature will be elected tomorrow for four years, and maybe within two years, a law will be run and set for the new Iraq, and probably by then, the occupation forces will be leaving by the end of 2007, and that came according to the agreement they reached in Cairo, all different factions, Kurds, Arab Sunnis, Arab Shiites and other minorities who met in Cairo under the auspices of the Arab League, when they called upon to schedule a timetable for the occupation forces to be leaving Iraq. So, this call is coming along with the call of Congressman Murtha in the U.S. and according also to the public opinion demanding the same thing in the U.S. and the West.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Sami Rousuli, we’re going to have to end it there. Sami Rousuli from the Muslim Peacemaker Teams, thank you for being with us, as well as Les Roberts, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University and author of the 2004 study on civilian mortality in Iraq, and thanks once again to Robert Fisk with the Independent, a Middle East correspondent for the London Independent. Thanks for being with us.