Iraq Body Count: Real and Imagined

Iraq Body Count: Real and Imagined
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
4 April 2015

“We don’t do body counts”, US General Tommy Franks, Commander of US forces in Afghanistan, infamously stated in 2002.

Depressingly, much of the mainstream media’s (lack of) coverage of the post 9/11 wars has broadly mirrored Western Government’s disinterest in those killed by their aggressive foreign policy.

This failure of journalism has had a predictable effect on US and UK public understanding of the Iraq War. A 2007 Ipsos poll of US public opinion included a question about how many Iraqis the interviewee thought had died in the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation. The median answer given was 9,890, with 72 percent of respondents believing under 50,000 Iraqis had died. Similarly, a 2013 ComRes survey found 74 per cent of Britons estimated that less than 50,000 Iraqi combatants and civilians had died as a consequence of the war, with 59 per cent estimating that less than 10,000 Iraqis had died. Only 6 per cent of the poll’s respondents estimated the death toll to be over 500,000 Iraqis.

It is this ginormous gap between public knowledge and reality that makes the new report from the Nobel Prize-winning Physicians For Social Responsibility (PSR) so important. Titled ‘Body Count’, the paper investigates the total number of deaths caused by the so-called War on Terror. PSR estimates the war “directly or indirectly, killed around 1 million people in Iraq, 220,000 in Afghanistan and 80,000 in Pakistan, i.e. a total of around 1.3 million.” Though they believe this shocking figure to be a conservative estimate, PSR note it is “approximately 10 times greater than that of which the public, experts and decision makers are aware of and propagated by the media and major NGOs.”

The report is particularly good on the relative merits of the different mortality surveys conducted in Iraq, comparing Iraq Body Count (IBC) with the 2006 Lancet survey. IBC, which recorded approximately 110,000 dead Iraqi civilians between 2003 and 2011, is repeatedly cited by the media. In contrast, the Lancet study’s estimate of 655,000 Iraqi dead was quickly attacked and rejected by politicians and many journalists.

Of course, the differing responses can be explained by how the respective results fit with Western Governments’ self-serving narrative of the war. This conclusion is inescapable when one considers an earlier mortality study on the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which used similar methods to the Lancet study, had been uncritically accepted by Western governments. In addition the Ministry of Defence’s Chief Scientific Advisor noted the Lancet study’s design was “robust and employs methods that are regarded as close to ‘best practice’ in this area”. As one of the report’s chapter headings says: the Lancet’s methodology is “barely disputed among experts”.

In contrast, the report explains how the IBC’s passive counting of Iraqi civilian deaths using Western media outlets and registered deaths by hospitals and morgues severely underestimates the total number of dead. The gaping flaws in their methodology are numerous and serious: Western media reports were often based on US military or Iraqi government sources, both of whom had a vested interest in downplaying the number of civilian dead; the Baghdad-based Western media’s coverage of provincial Iraq was patchy at best; as the level of violence rises in a particular area there is a corresponding reduction in media coverage; Western occupation forces often blocked journalists from investigating instances of civilian deaths; Iraqi government statistics from morgues were deliberately downplayed for political purposes.

There is a lot of hard evidence for the IBC’s gross underestimation. For example, in 2007 Najaf governorate’s spokesperson said they had buried 40,000 non-identified corpses since the start of the war. The IBC database records only 1,354 victims in Najaf. IBC recorded no violent deaths in Anbar province in June 2006, despite it being a stronghold of violent resistance to the occupation at the time.

Since the report was released on 19 March 2015, there has been zero coverage in the supposedly free and questioning British media. In addition to being morally reprehensible, this omission has huge ramifications for democracy and foreign policy: How can the British general public make informed decisions about foreign policy if they are not aware of the consequences of military action carried out by the UK and its allies?  T

his mass ignorance is no coincidence. Rather it is advantageous to the US and UK Governments. “The figure of 655,000 deaths in the first three war years alone… clearly points to a crime against humanity approaching genocide”, notes the PSR report about the 2006 Lancet survey. “Had this been understood and recognized by the public at large, the Iraq policy of the US and its European allies would not have been tenable for long.”

*Please note my article reproduces a couple of small factual errors from the original PRS report. Please read the comments below for more details.

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8 thoughts on “Iraq Body Count: Real and Imagined

  1. Mediocre Lens (@MediaLensWipe)

    You’ve regurgitated errors from the PSR ‘Body Count’ report which were, in turn, regurgitated by that report from other sources (notably Medialens, it seems, which the report cites several times).

    For example, you write: “In contrast, the report explains how the IBC’s passive counting of Iraqi civilian deaths using Western media outlets and registered deaths by hospitals and morgues severely underestimates the total number of dead. The gaping flaws in their methodology are numerous and serious: Western media reports were often based on US military or Iraqi government sources…”

    You should probably check your facts first. IBC uses both “non-Western” and “Western” media sources (see, for example, page 7 of their ‘How can the utility of press reports be assessed’, from the Analysis section of their website, for a good example graphic of their coverage 2006-07). The whole “Western media” misrepresentation of IBC seems to have originated with Medialens. I quote from a 2009 ZNet critique of Medialens’s output on this (so far unanswered by Medialens):

    “One of the main premises of Media Lens’s criticism of IBC is that ‘IBC is not primarily an Iraq Body Count, it is not even an Iraq Media Body count, it is an Iraq Western Media Body Count’ (David Edwards/Media Lens Alert, ZNet, March 14, 2006). This is entirely mistaken. IBC uses non-Western media sources and its database includes hospital, morgue and NGO data. It is able to monitor around 70 major ‘non-Western’ sources, along with 120 ‘Western’ sources.”

    So that’s one of the “gaping flaws in [IBC’s] methodology” (as you so nicely understate it) which you’ve got completely wrong. And you don’t list any other “gaping flaws” despite claiming that they’re “numerous and serious”.

    What you do next, however, is claim there is “a lot of hard evidence for the IBC’s gross underestimation”. What “hard evidence” do you then provide? Well, you write:

    “For example, in 2007 Najaf governorate’s spokesperson said they had buried 40,000 non-identified corpses since the start of the war. The IBC database records only 1,354 victims in Najaf. IBC recorded no violent deaths in Anbar province in June 2006, despite it being a stronghold of violent resistance to the occupation at the time.”

    Again you get it wrong (that’s the problem with uncritically regurgitating what you read). Bodies buried in Najaf mostly came from Baghdad & elsewhere. IBC numbers are for killings that took place in Najaf. Note the distinction between location of burial and location of killing.

    Furthermore, IBC records 56 (civilian) deaths in Anbar for June 2006, not 0. The “stronghold of violent resistance to the occupation” would tend to also have a lot of combatant (ie not civilian) deaths.

    And that’s the only “hard evidence” you provide – which boils down to the ineptitude of you, your source, and their sources. That’s how churnalism works – it’s not limited to the “MSM”.

    And, of course, what you and the PSR ‘Body Count’ report fail to mention is that IBC’s work has been vindicated repeatedly in the scientific literature (unlike Lancet 2006, which remains an outlier and which has been roundly criticised even by early supporters, eg Patrick Ball – an ‘expert’ that Medialens loved to cite).

    The latest example being the PLOS violent death figure, which approximately matched IBC’s (and which was very, very, very far off Lancet 2006’s figure, despite the PSR report quite wrongly claiming it provided “buttressing” of Lancet 2006). That’s the same PLOS which involved Gilbert Burnham (lead author of Lancet 2006) and which the “world’s leading epidemiologists” seem to think is the most reliable study yet.

    I look forward to reading your corrections, both above and in the Morning Star.

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  2. ianjs2014 Post author

    Hi Mediocre Lens

    Thanks for your comment.

    You criticise me for stating Iraq Body Count (IBC) use “Western media outlets”, noting “IBC uses both ‘non-Western’ and ‘Western’ media sources (see, for example, page 7 of their ‘How can the utility of press reports be assessed’, from the Analysis section of their website, for a good example graphic of their coverage 2006-07).”

    The page you cite shows, as far as I can tell, that the majority of IBC’s media reports are from “Western” media sources. This is confirmed by another page on IBC’s website: “IBC obtains nearly all its raw data from the English-language news media as published online (including some non-English reports as provided by their producers in translation). There are now 152 different sources cited in IBC’s database, but the most prevalent are the major newswires and US and UK newspapers.” (http://reports.iraqbodycount.org/a_dossier_of_civilian_casualties_2003-2005.pdf)

    So I was wrong to state IBC use “Western media outlets”. I should have said their media sources were “predominantly Western.”

    However, this fact does not change the larger criticisms the Physicians for Social Responsibility report (and many others) make about IBC’s reliance on media sources – Western or otherwise.
    I list several in my article, taken from a longer list in the PSR report. They include: media reports were often based on US military or Iraqi government sources, both of whom had a vested interest in downplaying the number of civilian dead; most of the media were based in Baghdad, meaning coverage of provincial Iraq was patchy at best; Western occupation forces often blocked journalists from investigating instances of civilian deaths; as the level of violence rises in a particular area there is a corresponding reduction in media coverage.

    Indeed, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the latter point. I presume you are aware of the report the 2006 Lancet study cites that shows “Between 1960 and 1990, newspaper accounts of political deaths in Guatemala correctly reported over 50% of deaths in years of low violence but less than 5% in years of highest violence”? (taken from Wikipedia, as I can’t access the full text of the 2006 Lancet report right now)

    You write “And you don’t list any other ‘gaping flaws’ despite claiming that they’re ‘numerous and serious’.”

    To be clear my article was just over 750 words long. The purpose of the article was to summarise some of the key findings of the PSR report. You won’t find a lot of detail in 750 words. However, to say I don’t list any other “gaping flaws” is simply not true. I list examples of what I consider to be “gaping flaws”…. oh that’s right…. immediately after I say “The gaping flaws in their methodology are numerous and serious”. Anyone who is interested can read my article, obviously.

    You question the PSR’s comparison of 40,000 unidentified corpses buried in Najaf cemetery with IBC’s figures of those killed in Najaf. I had a look at PSR’s source for this claim and while the wording is a little vague nowhere does it say “Bodies buried in Najaf mostly came from Baghdad & elsewhere.” If you have sources for this, I’d be interested in seeing them.

    You then point out IBC records 56 (civilian) deaths in Anbar for June 2006, not 0. So it looks like PSR got this wrong (presuming it was listed as 56 when they checked the IBC database – as I understand it information is added retrospectively). However, you then go on to suggest the 56 civilian deaths are likely to be accurate. I’ll let readers decide if 56 civilian dead in Anbar province (which you agree was a major “stronghold of violent resistance to the occupation”) in June 2006 is likely to be correct.

    However, again your criticisms of the two bits of evidence I cite does not change the fact that the IBC very likely seriously undercounts the number of Iraqis who died because of the invasion and occupation. You castigate me for providing two bits of hard evidence. As I say above it’s a 750 word article. What you fail to mention is that the PSR report lists lots more examples where there is hard evidence of the IBC undercounting the number of Iraqi dead – page 36 to 42 in the report. I’d recommend readers who are interested to read the report – obviously I wrote the article to encourage people to read the report.

    You claim the “IBC’s work has been vindicated repeatedly in the scientific literature (unlike Lancet 2006, which remains an outlier and which has been roundly criticised even by early supporters, eg Patrick Ball – an ‘expert’ that Medialens loved to cite).”

    I’ve seen no evidence that IBC “has been vindicated repeatedly in the scientific literature” – in fact if anything I’ve seen the opposite. The 2006 Lancet study was carried out by a prestigious university, by trained epidemiologists, and published in arguably the top peer-reviewed medical journal. That doesn’t mean its above criticism, of course, but to suggest the IBC has a higher standing in the scientific community seems an extraordinary claim (see the quote below from the leader author of the PLOS report), so you’ll have to provide a lot of evidence to change my mind on this.

    You then finish by arguing “the PLOS [the 2013 study of mortality in Iraq published in the PLOS medical journal] violent death figure, which approximately matched IBC’s (and which was very, very, very far off Lancet 2006’s figure, despite the PSR report quite wrongly claiming it provided ‘buttressing’ of Lancet 2006). That’s the same PLOS which involved Gilbert Burnham (lead author of Lancet 2006) and which the ‘world’s leading epidemiologists’ seem to think is the most reliable study yet.”

    First, the lead author of the PLOS report, Amy Hagopian of the University of Washington, has stated “We think it is roughly around half a million people dead. And that is likely a low estimate”. (http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/10/131015-iraq-war-deaths-survey-2013/)

    Second, Gilbert Burnham, who as you say worked on both the PLOS and 2006 Lancet reports, has, according to America Aljazeera “defended the results of both studies”. Burnham said “From a statistical standpoint, the numbers are not really different from each other.” (http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2013/10/15/iraq-war-civiliandeathtoll500knewstudyestimates.html ). Burnham’s quote, of course, broadly supports PSR’s conclusions about the 2006 Lancet report and the PLOS report.

    So, to confirm, the person you cite approvingly directly contradicts your assertion that the results of the PLOS report and the 2006 Lancet report are “very, very, very far off” from each other.

    Furthermore, the PLOS study authors note the Iraq Body Count data “underrepresent death rates” (http://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.1001533). As you will know the PLOS authors also note “a recent comparison of recorded incidents between the two databases revealed that the Iraq Body Count captured fewer than one in four of the Iraq War Logs deaths. One important reason for the discrepancy is that small incidents are often missed in press reports. For example, when asked why the assassination of a medical school dean in Baghdad did not merit reporting, Tim Arango (of the New York Times) stated in personal correspondence to AH in April 2011, ‘Unfortunately there are numerous assassinations every day, and we cannot cover them all.'”

    Again, to confirm, what this shows is the PLOS authors directly contradict your claim the PLOS report supports IBC’s results. Infact, the PLOS authors broadly agree with the criticisms the PSR report makes of IBC.

    I would recommend you have a listen to this interview with the lead author of the PLOS report: (http://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/default.aspx?page=13671 – nine minutes in. Talking about why the PLOS report’s estimate is much more than IBC’s figure she notes “the true public health science approach to estimating mortality is to do a population-based study, generally involving household-type sampling. And that’s the approach that we and others prior to this study have used. And it is considered the most appropriate sort of study for a public health phenomenon like mortality or morbidity.”

    When she refers to “the approach that we and others prior to this study have used” – “the true public health science approach” – do you think she is talking about the 2006 Lancet study or IBC?

    And do take listen to what she says from 17 minutes onwards – basically agreeing with me and PSR that there is a huge disconnect between the US and UK general public and reality when it comes to the number of Iraqi dead.

    In conclusion, you’ve pointed out some small errors in the PSR report, which I repeated in my article. I should have checked these more carefully before submitting my article. However, much like climategate and wider issue of climate change, your small criticisms do not seriously change the validity of the larger criticisms that PSR, and many others, make of IBC – which remain, in my eyes, serious and unanswerable. Tellingly, you also fail to address some of the more important testimony and arguments that I quote in my article and that appear elsewhere – what the Chief Scientist of the Ministry of Defence had to say about the 2006 Lancet report, the reception of early mortality studies conducted on similar lines to the 2006 Lancet study and the Guatemalan study, among them.

    Ian

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    1. Mediocre Lens (@MediaLensWipe)

      Thanks. Around 70 of IBC’s approx 200 sources are non-Western. This is not difficult to check on IBC’s website. Claiming that IBC use solely “Western” media is hardly a “small error” – indeed it’s the main premise for much of the material which damaged IBC’s reputation (among those who swallowed it) following Medialens’s original dissemination of this falsehood. Note that Medialens still haven’t corrected this – or the many inferences from it – in their writings (even though they effectively acknowledged the error over 8 years ago). This is why it’s now recycled by PSR and those who churnalise it (eg yourself). Perhaps you could set an example by correcting it in your article, rather than admitting it in a “below-the-line” comment which few people will read?

      The general point about media undercounting is hardly a relevation. Way before Medialens wrongly (and stupidly) misinterpreted “English-language news media” to mean “Western” in their original ‘alerts’, IBC made a clear general point about media (in its Quick FAQ): “it is likely that many if not most civilian casualties will go unreported by the media”.

      As for the rest (Najaf, PLOS, etc), if you’re interested, you can follow up the links, etc, which I’ve supplied in my Twitter TL and in replies to people recently. A good starting point on PLOS (and earlier studies), which you might find challenging given your current beliefs/assumptions, would be this: http://musingsoniraq.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/new-survey-on-estimated-deaths-in-iraq.html

      The fact that you’re unaware of studies supporting the validity of IBC’s methodology/database suggests you haven’t looked far in the scientific literature. There’s even a relatively recent (2013) Lancet study which went with IBC’s count (116,903) as its headline figure: http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%2813%2960254-8/fulltext

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  3. ianjs2014 Post author

    Hi Mediocre Lens

    Thank for your further comment.

    I’m happy to provide a correction at the bottom of the article highlighting there are some small factual errors in my article, pointing readers to the comments section below.

    Just to confirm, in March 2006 Media Lens accurately stated “IBC relies heavily on Western media” (http://www.medialens.org/index.php/alerts/alert-archive/2006/439-iraq-body-count-refuses-to-respond.html). So your claim that Media Lens argue IBC relies solely on Western media is itself a falsehood, no?

    I looked at the Musings Of Iraq Blog before I posted my initial response to you, thanks.

    You cite one reference to IBC in a Lancet article to back up your contention that “IBC’s work has been vindicated repeatedly in the scientific literature (unlike Lancet 2006, which remains an outlier and which has been roundly criticised even by early supporters, eg Patrick Ball – an ‘expert’ that Medialens loved to cite).”

    This is great but doesn’t, as you well know, stack up against the many experts that have supported the methodology of the 2006 Lancet study. Many of these are listed in the PSR report, including Richard Garfield (professor of public health at Columbia University), Richard Brennan (head of heath programmes at the International Rescue Committee), Sarah Leah (Human Rights Watch), John Zogby (Zogy polling agency), Richard Peto (professor of Medical Statistics at the University of Oxford), David Rush (professor and epidemiologist at Tufts University) and Steve Heeringa (director of the statistical design group at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan). Then there is the 27 Australian experts who signed a letter in support of the 2006 Lancet study (http://www.theage.com.au/news/opinion/the-iraq-deaths-study-was-valid-and-correct/2006/10/20/1160851135985.html?page=fullpage#contentSwap1). Oh, and the Chief Scientist of the UK Ministry of Defence (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/6495753.stm). I’m fairly sure there is nowhere near as much expert support for IBC as there is for the 2006 Lancet study, though if you have evidence showing different please do send it to me.

    I notice you have chosen not to engage with any of the criticisms my article and the PSR report makes about IBC relying on largely Western reports.

    I notice you have chosen not to engage with my challenge to you to “address some of the more important testimony and arguments that I quote in my article and that appear elsewhere – what the Chief Scientist of the Ministry of Defence had to say about the 2006 Lancet report, the reception of early mortality studies conducted on similar lines to the 2006 Lancet study and the Guatemalan study, among them.”

    I notice you have chosen not to address the fact Gilbert Burnham, who you approvingly quote and who worked on both the PLOS study and the 2006 Lancet study, seems to directly contradict your belief that the PLOS study significantly challenges the 2006 Lancet study.

    I notice you have chosen not to address the fact Gilbert Burnham’s quote broadly supports PSR’s conclusions, and not your argument.

    I notice you have chosen not to address the fact the authors of the PLOS study clearly states the IBC data “underrepresent death rates”.

    I notice you have chosen not to address the fact the lead author of the PLOS study seems to support “he true public health science approach to estimating mortality” of the 2006 Lancet study, and not IBC’s methodology.

    I notice you have chosen not to address the fact the authors of the PLOS study broadly agree with the criticisms made by PSR about the IBC’s reliance on media sources.

    As you are so keen on corrections, I presume you will be contacting everyone who you’ve told the PLOS study “vindicates” IBC (see, for example. https://twitter.com/MediaLensWipe/status/586109644394913792), explaining that the authors of the PLOS study do not agree with your assertion? And that Gilbert Burnham, who you quote approvingly, has said about the 2006 Lancet study and the PLOS study “From a statistical standpoint, the numbers are not really different from each other”?

    I look forward to seeing you send these corrections out.

    Ian

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  4. Mediocre Lens (@MediaLensWipe)

    I think you’ve lost the plot a bit here, Ian. Nowhere do I quote Gilbert Burnham “approvingly” in the context you refer to. And I doubt whether you can find any support among the wider scientific community (ie “neutral”, uninvested experts) for the bizarre quote attributed to Gilbert Burnham, that “from a statistical standpoint” the numbers for PLOS and Lancet 2006 “are not really different from each other”.

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  5. ianjs2014 Post author

    Hi Mediocre Lens

    Thanks for your further comment.

    I’ll leave it up to readers to decide whether you quote/cite Burnham approvingly above – which, incidentally, I said in my original reply, which you didn’t have a problem with then.

    As you have ignored them, I’ll also repeat, again, the important points you have failed to address or seriously engage with, and my request you yourself make corrections:

    “I notice you have chosen not to engage with any of the criticisms my article and the PSR report makes about IBC relying on largely Western reports.

    I notice you have chosen not to engage with my challenge to you to “address some of the more important testimony and arguments that I quote in my article and that appear elsewhere – what the Chief Scientist of the Ministry of Defence had to say about the 2006 Lancet report, the reception of early mortality studies conducted on similar lines to the 2006 Lancet study and the Guatemalan study, among them.”

    I notice you have chosen not to address the fact Gilbert Burnham, who you approvingly quote and who worked on both the PLOS study and the 2006 Lancet study, seems to directly contradict your belief that the PLOS study significantly challenges the 2006 Lancet study.

    I notice you have chosen not to address the fact Gilbert Burnham’s quote broadly supports PSR’s conclusions, and not your argument.

    I notice you have chosen not to address the fact the authors of the PLOS study clearly states the IBC data “underrepresent death rates”.

    I notice you have chosen not to address the fact the lead author of the PLOS study seems to support “he true public health science approach to estimating mortality” of the 2006 Lancet study, and not IBC’s methodology.

    I notice you have chosen not to address the fact the authors of the PLOS study broadly agree with the criticisms made by PSR about the IBC’s reliance on media sources.

    As you are so keen on corrections, I presume you will be contacting everyone who you’ve told the PLOS study “vindicates” IBC (see, for example. https://twitter.com/MediaLensWipe/status/586109644394913792), explaining that the authors of the PLOS study do not agree with your assertion? And that Gilbert Burnham, who you quote approvingly, has said about the 2006 Lancet study and the PLOS study “From a statistical standpoint, the numbers are not really different from each other”?”

    Ian

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    1. Mediocre Lens (@MediaLensWipe)

      On the bizarre quote attributed to Gilbert Burnham that the PLOS & Lancet 2006 numbers are “not really different from each other”, here’s an excerpt from an article in Slate on the PLOS study:

      “The Lancet survey estimated an annual mortality rate of 5.5 per 1,000 people for the two years prior to the war and 13.3 per 1,000 in the years after. Some experts were suspicious of these numbers, noting that the U.N. Population Division put the pre-war death rate at 10 per 1,000. In the new study [PLOS], the numbers are quite different. The survey found a death rate of 2.89 per 1,000 in the two years before the war and 4.55 between 2003 and 2011.”
      http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_world_/2013/10/18/new_study_estimates_half_a_million_casualties_from_iraq_war_but_how_reliable.html

      Btw, I find it deeply odd that you keep repeating the lie that I’ve quoted Gilbert Burnham “approvingly” in this context. In the tweet you keep linking to, I do nothing of the sort.

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