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A new study points out just how tough it can be to estimate the number of violent deaths in Iraq. The World Health Organization and the Iraqi Health Ministry have put out a number that is one-fourth of an earlier estimate. They say that over 150,000 Iraqis died violent deaths during the first three years after the U.S. invasion.

NPR's Brenda Wilson has our story.

BRENDA WILSON: 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.

Mr. TIES BOERMA (Director of Measurements and Health Information, World Health Organization): They don't include car accidents. They don't include unintentional injuries. They just include intentional injuries and armed conflict. And in fact, the armed conflict deaths are more than 80 percent of those deaths that we have reported.

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

Mr. BOERMA: If they said, you know, it was a traffic accident, then we record it - it was recorded as a traffic accident. But if they sort of said, well, somebody died while trying to avoid a bomb blast or something like that, they could have also recoded it as armed conflict death. But that was up to the respondent on what kind of detail and how they would define it.

WILSON: Boerma and his team looked at the period between March 2003 and June 2006, when there were around 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 Hopkins' earlier study visited many fewer clusters, that is, neighborhoods and villages, 47 compared to more than 1,000 that WHO visited.

Mr. BOERMA: Because we're talking about a survey that's much larger, we have a little bit more confidence in that method than in a very small 47-cluster survey that came up with a very high number.

WILSON: 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 with Iraq's Ministry of Health can produce the same.

Mr. LES ROBERTS (Researcher, Johns Hopkins School of Public Health): Every graveyard tally, every morgue description I've seen suggests that the majority of deaths are from violence. So there's two possibilities. Our estimate has too many violent deaths or their estimate has too few. And I think in this case, people were reluctant to admit to a government official that my family member died a violent death.

WILSON: 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 magnitude of death the Iraq conflict has caused.

Brenda Wilson, NPR News.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

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