Iraq death tolls, yet again

John Rentoul

iraq 300x179 Iraq death tolls, yet againIf historical inquiry is a constant attempt to revise approximations so that they are closer to the truth, then we are now getting about as close as we can to a robust view of the number of people who died in Iraq as a result of the US-led invasion in 2003.

This is a subject about which I have written many times, but it may be worth restating the main points.

1. I have been critical of the American and British authorities for failing to engage with the issue. This shows a lack of respect for Iraqi loss of life, and it also allows the most extravagant mis-estimates to gain credibility with serious media organisations.

2. I think that far too many people have died, which is a terrible indictment not of the decision to invade but of the failure to prepare for what followed. I do not agree with opponents of invasion, but that 100,000-150,000 have died should be enough for them to make their case without having to exaggerate the toll by a factor of as much as 10.

Two new studies by Professor Michael Spagat of the Department of Economics at Royal Holloway College shed light on the failings of two of the best known surveys that have produced excessive estimates.

The first is an article in Defence and Peace Economics entitled “Ethical And Data-Integrity Problems In The Second Lancet Survey Of Mortality In Iraq”. The Lancet study suggested an “excess mortality” in the three years after the invasion of 601,000. Spagat concludes:

This paper considers the second Lancet survey of mortality in Iraq published in October 2006. It presents some evidence suggesting ethical violations to the survey’s respondents including endangerment, privacy breaches and violations in obtaining informed consent. Breaches of minimal disclosure standards examined include non-disclosure of the survey’s questionnaire, data-entry form, data matching anonymised interviewer identifications with households and sample design. The paper also presents some evidence relating to data fabrication and falsification, which falls into nine broad categories. This evidence suggests that this survey cannot be considered a reliable or valid contribution towards knowledge about the extent of mortality in Iraq since 2003.

Spagat’s second paper, a joint article with Joshua Dougherty in Survey Research Methods, looks at the even weaker basis for an Opinion Research Business survey that suggested a death toll of 1 million.

We compare three ORB polls and find important irregularities in ORB´s mortality data in four central governorates of Iraq that account for more than 80% of the estimated deaths. These internal validity checks indicate that the ORB mortality data are not credible and would suggest a much lower estimate than ORB has published. We also analyze a number of specific error sources in the poll. Systematic errors, which include non-coverage and measurement errors, mostly point toward overestimation. Variable errors are also substantial but they are difficult to quantify in part due to incomplete disclosure of methodological details by ORB. External validity checks, including comparisons with two much larger and higher quality surveys, reinforce the conclusion that ORB has overestimated the number killed in Iraq by a wide margin.

(A pdf of an exchange of views between Johnny Heald, managing director of ORB, and Spagat and Dougherty can be downloaded here.)

Fortunately, the ORB estimate has rarely been treated as credible by responsible media organisations, but it is still widely repeated by cranks and the ignorant.

Photograph: Karim Kadim/AP

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  • Guest

    The ‘humanitarian’ brigade will not be satisfied until they have dug up every Iraqi – mostly murdered in their inevitable civil war – and they have restored a Saddam successor his WMD programmes, which the UN so spitefully removed, ready to use against us.

  • BlairSupporter

    No, aardvark10. You are wrong. John Rentoul is right. The hypocrisy rife within the “thinking” of those who describe the Iraq invasion as illegal and yet seem to put aside so MANY other calamitous consequences of Saddam’s rule, is evident when a touch of ‘What Aboutary’ is brought into the picture. But of course, like proving a negative, it’s almost impossible. So do continue in your KNOW-ALL way to astound us with YOUR ‘facts’. As for “should retire from commenting on public events” – good try.

  • BlairSupporter

    Have you or does anyone have any REAL idea who has killed most of the people in Iraq? Or indeed who are still, today, killing those who die there? I have no access to figures, but it is clear that the people killing Iraqis are NOT the nasty western invaders. Showing the pictures of the ‘horrors unleashed’ by the REAL killers – and if you don’t recognise that the real killers are people in Iraq and in the region, buy a TV – and reminding people who killed them would be useful. Suicide bombs, anyone? Yes, there is the argument that if the Iraq decision hadn’t been made in the way it was, many more people would still be alive. On the other hand, many more may have died under Saddam’s WMD programme, as he used on the Kurds. Leave political leadership and decision-making to those with political nous and elected to decide. It ain’t you, KingofWelshNoir.

  • aardvark10

    Thank you BlairSupporter for not letting me down. I thought for a day or two that you might just have reappraised your tactics, but no! Another “I’m right and you’re wrong – I klnow it all and you know nothing” contribution actually totally devoid of any facts or reasoned argument. So utterly predictable. Your continued justification for removing Saddam counts for absolutely nothing unless you can let us know, with your infinite knowledge, why we do not adopt the same tactics in Zimbabwe, Myanmar, North Korea, Iran and various African regimes.
    As you mention facts, here are a few. I personally have never made much of the legality or otherwise of the Iraq War and similarly have never made much of trying Blair for war crimes. I HAVE made much of the fact that Blair lied to take us to war, as proved by Chris Ames in and not repudiated convincingly by you or John Rentoul. You personally could learn a great deal from Chris Ames’ style, even if you disagree with his views.
    Perhaps we can agrere on one thing. The tactics Blair used to take us to war in Iraq means that the chances of a similar invasion in the future by this country are virtually nil. This is the potentially disasterous legacy of the Iraq war.

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