Study: More than 650,000 Iraqis Dead from War

A new study concludes that 650,000 Iraqis have died as a consequence of the war. That's 2.5 percent of the nation's population. The study is based on a sampling method that has drawn some criticism, though critics say more conventional methods of tallying deaths underestimate the toll.

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A new study has reignited the debate over exactly how many Iraqis died during the war. A report in The Lancet Medical Journal says that about 650,000 Iraqis have died since the war began in 2003. That number is much higher than previous estimates and leaders in the U.S. and Iraq are disputing the conclusion.

NPR's Richard Harris reports.

RICHARD HARRIS: President Bush doesn't usually comment on reports in medical journals, but the question about The Lancet report came up at a news conference today. A journalist asked Mr. Bush, in light of the new estimate, if he still believes that the death toll in Iraq is around 30,000, as he said in December.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I stand by the figure a lot of innocent people have lost their life. Six hundred thousand or whatever they guessed at is just -it's not credible.

HARRIS: The authors of the study say the number is high because their research attempts to do more than simply count bodies of known casualties. Researchers working with the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins went to nearly 2,000 homes randomly selected throughout Iraq. They knocked on doors and asked the residents whether any members of the household had died in the past few years.

Researcher Gilbert Burnham says they then calculated the increase in the death rate since the war and extrapolated that to the entire population of Iraq. The answer came out around 650,000 excess deaths since the war started.

Mr. GILBERT BURNHAM (Johns Hopkins University): By far, the majority of deaths were due to violent causes and of those, gunshot wounds accounted for about half of the deaths.

HARRIS: A large portion of the dead were military aged men who may have died in combat, sectarian violence or simply street mayhem.

Now, 650,000 isn't an exact figure. Burnham says the statistical uncertainty means it could be anywhere from 400,000 to 900,000. That's a smaller margin of error than a previous study this group reported two years ago.

Another improvement in this study is that most fatalities were actually documented with death certificates. The Lancet Medical Journal says it sent the paper to four independent reviewers who approved of the methods and conclusions.

Patrick Ball was not one of those reviewers, but he works at a non-profit group called the Benetech Initiative, which among other things estimates deaths from armed conflicts.

Mr. PATRICK BALL (The Benetech Initiative): I think that this is a terrific analysis of a very, very difficult problem. Given the conditions that they're working under, this may be as good as we can do right now.

HARRIS: Ball says he's not surprised that the figure is much higher than is reported by the more conventional body counts, which use records from morgues or from news reports.

Mr. BALL: And those are both useful points of information but they are certain to be undercounts. There are certain to be fewer deaths known than really occur.

HARRIS: The rate found in this paper suggests that the war and its aftermath is responsible for the death of about two and a half percent of the Iraqi population, plus or minus one percent.

Mr. BALL: It's not an unreasonable figure, but it's on the high end. I mean, it puts Iraq way up there with places like Guatemala and Bosnia. It puts it, you know, heading toward the Rwanda range.

HARRIS: The study does have its critics. Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution, compiles his own much lower body count figures. He says he simply doesn't believe that the traditional counting methods could be so far off.

Mr. MICHAEL O'HANLON (Brookings Institution): This new study is trying to throw a hand grenade into the whole thing by saying the number is triple or quadruple even the highest estimates and the highest bounds of the previous high estimates. That is a shocking variation that is not in any way consistent with the overall message of previous efforts.

HARRIS: Some are also wondering whether the study is politically motivated, since it is being released during election season. Author Gilbert Burnham denies that motive, but he does say he chose to get the paper fast tracked through the medical journal's publication process.

Mr. BURNHAM: We asked for that because we didn't want to get it any closer to the election and yet we felt this was an important area that needed public discussion.

HARRIS: And he succeeded in doing that.

Richard Harris, NPR News.

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