WHO Estimates Iraqi Death Toll at 151,000

A study conducted by the World Health Organization and the Iraq Health Ministry estimates that more than 150,000 Iraqis suffered violent deaths in the first three years after the U.S. invasion.

That's about a fourth of the number of deaths found in an earlier controversial study.

The World Health Organization's study of violent deaths is based on visits to more than 10,000 households throughout Iraq. Ties Boerma, WHO's director of Measurements and Health Information, says the results include the deaths of civilians and soldiers who were part of those households.

"They don't include car accidents and they don't include unintentional injuries," says Boerma. "They just include intentional injuries and armed conflict. In fact, the armed conflict deaths are more than 80 percent of the deaths we got reported."

Researchers left it up to the respondents to define the cause of death.

"If they said someone died while trying to avoid a bomb blast, (you) could define it as an armed conflict death, but that was up to the respondents," says Boerma.

Boerma and his team looked at the period between March 2003 and June 2006, and estimated 151,000 violent deaths in Iraq.

That's a fraction of the more than 600,000 violent deaths reported for the same period by researchers at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health in 2006, a survey that continues to be debated in the press and political circles.

Both studies counted civilian and combatant fatalities. Boerma thinks the difference in their findings is that the earlier Hopkins study visited far fewer neighborhoods and villages. Researchers working with Hopkins visited 47 so-called clusters; researchers with WHO visited more than 1,000 clusters.

"Because we are talking about a survey that is much larger, we have a little bit more confidence in that method than in a very small cluster survey," says Boerma.

Boerma admits that even the bigger survey missed areas that were too violent to get into and so they made adjustments for that.

Les Roberts was the co-author of the Johns Hopkins study. He says that they can produce a death certificate for every violent death in their tally and he doubts the surveyors working for Iraq's Ministry of Health can produce the same.

"Every graveyard tally, every morgue description I've seen suggests the majority of deaths are from violence," Roberts says. "There are two possibilities. Our estimate has too many. Theirs has too few." Roberts says he thinks in the case of the WHO study, families were reluctant to admit a family member died a violent death.

However, there are other reports on increases in violent deaths whose trends are closer to those reported by WHO.

It is unlikely that this latest research will settle the question of the exact magnitude of death the Iraq conflict has caused.

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