Study Puts War’s Iraqi Death Tally at More Than 600,000

Times Staff Writer

More than 600,000 Iraqis have died violently since the U.S.-led invasion, according to a new estimate that is far higher than any other to date.

The report, by a team of researchers criticized for its death estimates two years ago, says that 601,027 Iraqis have suffered violent deaths since the March 2003 invasion. It also suggests that the country has become more violent in the last year.

“This clearly is a much higher number than many people have been thinking about,” said Gilbert Burnham, the report’s lead author and a professor at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University. “It shows the violence has spread across the country.”


Iraq’s violent death rate rose from 3.2 deaths per 1,000 people in the year after the invasion to 12 per 1,000 from June 2005 to June 2006, according to the researchers, whose findings are being published this week in the British medical journal Lancet.

Most of the deaths reported in the study are of military-age men. But Burnham said it was impossible to differentiate among civilians, insurgents and members of the Iraqi security forces.

He said he expected criticism of the study, which grapples with an issue that is sensitive to U.S. and British officials: the undetermined number of war-related deaths.

The same group of researchers conducted a study in 2004 that placed the number of deaths caused by the war at about 100,000. British and American officials questioned its methodology and said it vastly overstated fatalities.

The Pentagon reported in August that the number of civilian casualties had increased sharply, but it did not quantify them.

Pentagon officials did not comment Tuesday on the latest study’s numbers and referred questions on civilian deaths to the Iraqi Health Ministry. But Lt. Col. Mark Ballesteros, a Pentagon spokesman, said the U.S. took care to avoid civilian casualties, whereas insurgents deliberately targeted civilians.


Some groups, such as Human Rights Watch, were skeptical of the previous estimate made by the Johns Hopkins researchers. But Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division, said her group had no reason to question the accuracy of the new survey.

“If there is surprise about the size of the figure, it has more to do with our existing death tolls,” Whitson said. “The conventional wisdom is based on shoddy information.”

But Michael O’Hanlon, a Brookings Institution scholar who compiles civilian casualty estimates and who was critical of the last study, called the survey method flawed.

“The study is so far off they should not have published it. It is irresponsible,” he said. “Their numbers are out of whack with every other estimate.”

The Bush administration last year estimated the war’s civilian casualty count at 30,000. A report by the Los Angeles Times in June, based on statistics from the Iraqi Health Ministry and the Baghdad morgue, estimated that 50,000 civilians had been killed in the conflict. That is similar to the estimate by the British-based antiwar group Iraq Body Count, which puts the number of civilian casualties at between 43,850 and 48,693.

The Johns Hopkins estimate is based on a survey of 1,849 randomly selected households in Iraq. The results from the sample were applied to the country at large, which has an estimated population of 25 million. The survey was conducted by physicians from Baghdad’s Mustansiriya University School of Medicine. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for International Studies was a sponsor.


The Johns Hopkins researchers said methods that relied on morgue data or news reports may be inaccurate and undercount the deaths. Paul Bolton, an associate professor at the Boston University School of Public Health who reviewed the study at the behest of the authors, said official statistics were often less reliable than surveys.

“Most of the time people would trust a random sample more than they would any kind of official reporting or official statistic,” Bolton said. “Often we use this type of study to check if the official statistics are accurate.”

Based on the survey results, the Johns Hopkins researchers said, they are 95% certain that the number of Iraqis killed violently during the war ranges from 426,369 to 793,663. They said 601,027 is statistically the most probable number.

“It is definitely an improved study” from the one done in 2004, Burnham said. “We learned from the experience last time. Last time we did not expect to find so much violence. We expected to find deaths from diarrhea and environmental issues.”

The percentage of deaths attributed to U.S.-led coalition action has been falling but remains high. From June 2005 to June 2006, 26% of the deaths were caused by coalition action, 30% by other fighters, and 44% could not be determined. During the first year of the war, 36% of the deaths were attributed to U.S.-led military operations.

The estimate, based on what Iraqi families told researchers, would suggest that nearly 200,000 people have been killed by American forces since the war began. But O’Hanlon said that asking Iraqis to place blame for a family member’s death might not yield an accurate response.


“You see very critical attitudes to the occupying power,” he said. “People blame the U.S. for violent deaths that somebody else may have caused.”

The study suggests that the number of Iraqi dead is in line with civilian death estimates in other conflicts, including the Vietnam War.

“Now that we see the size of this conflict,” Burnham said, “there needs to be serious discussion of how we lessen this impact, how we protect the populations better in future conflicts.”


Rising toll

More than 600,000 Iraqis have died violently since the U.S.-led invasion, and the rate has risen sharply, according to a report from a team of researchers.

Iraqi violent death rates

(Deaths per 1,000, per year)

3/03-4/04: 3.2

5/04-5/05: 6.6

6/05-6/06: 12.0


Causes of death

(From a sample of 302 deaths)

Gunshot: 56%

Ordnance, explosion: 14%

Car bomb: 13%

Airstrike: 13%

Violent, unknown: 2%

Accident 2%

Source: “The Human Cost of the War in Iraq: A Mortality Study, 2002-06”

Los Angeles Times