October 11, 2006

The Butcher's Bill

By now everyone's seen the new study showing that roughly 655,000 people have died in Iraq, over and beyond what would've been the case had the Bush administration never gone to war. Calling the numbers "ghastly" or "sickening" would be redundant at this point, but I do want to highlight a few things in the full study. Some armchair staticians are already casting doubt on the paper by suggesting that the numbers couldn't possibly be that high. But here's what the authors have to say:
Much violence is occurring far from the view of journalists and widely cited mechanisms for counting the dead. Most Western reporters are based in Baghdad. Even there, large-scale events tend to gain attention, not the numerous but scattered incidences of violence that also occur. [...]

The large rise in sectarian violence, and the survey's findings regarding gunshots being the principal cause of death, correlate closely. They also reflect the reports of widespread assassinations. If, for example, there were three such killings daily in each of the 75 or so urban centers of Iraq (outside of Baghdad and the Kurdish north), the total for the 40 months covered by this survey would equal more than 270,000; four such killings daily in those 75 cities would equal 360,000 in that period.
So the numbers are entirely plausible. I'd note, though, that I was a bit surprised to see that of the estimated 655,000 excess deaths, roughly 600,000 were attributed to violence, and the rest to disease and other causes. From what we know about the dismal water quality and health care in Iraq, wouldn't we expect the number of deaths from disease to be much, much higher? I guess the explanation is that Iraq's public health system was so horrible under Saddam Hussein--due, in part, to U.N. sanctions during the 1990s--that the bungled occupation and incessant violence has only made things moderately worse on that score.

Anyway, the researchers made a couple other points worth reiterating. One, they observe that while these numbers may sound shocking to some, they might explain why so many Iraqis want the United States out. Coalition forces, after all, are killing an estimated 4,700 Iraqis a month--many via the air war that's being conducted largely outside the media's purview. Two, "the overall scale of violence and the large representation of young men in the mortality figures may indicate a much larger insurgency and/or membership in militias than is widely estimated." Three, a staggering percentage of the violence is taking place outside Baghdad, even though the capital has been the focus of the military's strategy of late. Quite the punctuation mark we've got here.
-- Brad Plumer 2:54 PM || ||