‘Truth’ and Iraq’s ‘excess’ body count

By Deborah Jones

A commentary that accompanies a new report on Iraq’s war dead is more poignant than the statistics cited.

The study links nearly half a million “unexpected” deaths in Iraq to the American-led invasion, between 2003 and 2011.

Most of the deaths — which would not be expected had the war not happened – “can be attributed to direct violence, but about a third are attributable to indirect causes (such as from failures of health, sanitation, transportation, communication, and other systems),” said Mortality in Iraq, a report published in PLOS Medicine, a peer-review online science journal. Though sanitized by academic language and dry statistics, it’s grim reading. Excerpts:

 “”Despite receiving the most press coverage, explosive devices were not the leading proximate cause of death among war casualties—rather, gunshots were. Gunshots were reported to cause 63 per cent of violent deaths; car bombs, 12 per cent; and other explosions, nine per cent. Gunshot deaths were most common for the period March 1, 2003–December 31, 2008, and dropped precipitously thereafter.

“U.S.-led coalition forces were reported to be responsible for the largest proportion of war-related violent deaths (35 per cent), followed by militia (32 per cent). While militia were reportedly responsible for the most adult male deaths in the sibling survey, coalition forces were reportedly responsible for killing the most women.

“Cardiovascular conditions were the main cause of nonviolent death, accounting for 47 per cent of nonviolent deaths over the entire study period. Other common sources of nonviolent deaths included chronic illnesses (11 per cent), infant or childhood deaths other than injuries (12.4 per cent), non-war injuries (11 per cent), and cancer (eight per cent).”

It’s often said truth is the first casualty of war, but what goes unsaid is the difficulty in establishing “truth” — especially when feuding parties find cause to support differing versions of it.

Today’s report is the latest – and purportedly the most rigorous – in a series of organized attempts  to count “excess” bodies. Other estimates range from some 126,000 in total since the war began (Iraq Body Count) to 654,965 midway through the war (in a 2006 report published in the Lancet.) Research is difficult in a war zone, but complicating matters is that researcher’s findings may be unwelcome. An example of this was the United States refusal in April, 2007, to allow one of the Lancet study’s co-authors, Riyadh Lafta, to enter the country to talk to public health academics in Washington State.

Today’s commentary in PLOS, by Salman Rawaf of Imperial College London and published alongside the study, points out that all attempts to count bodies have been “perceived as being politically motivated, deliberately either over-reporting or suppressing the number of deaths.”

Rawaf writes in The 2003 Iraq War and Avoidable Death Toll that the new findings “may help some families feel that their loss has at least been recognised, but continued sectarian bombings and targeted killings are deepening the sense of insecurity that continues to gnaw away at Iraq … “

“Living in Iraq today is no longer about how many have died, but how future deaths should be prevented,” concludes Rawaf. “In a region with escalating violence, sadly, this may be a distant dream.”

Copyright © 2013 Deborah Jones