05 February 2008

Revised research on Iraq casualty statistics

ORB (Opinion Research Business), the independent UK-based polling agency, has produced more research on deaths in Iraq:

Following responses to ORB’s earlier work, which was based on survey work undertaken in primarily urban locations, we have conducted almost 600 additional interviews in rural communities. By and large the results are in line with the 'urban results' and we now estimate that the death toll between March 2003 and August 2007 is likely to have been of the order of 1,033,000. If one takes into account the margin of error associated with survey data of this nature then the estimated range is between 946,000 and 1,120,000.
The ORB survey makes no claim to be as rigorous as the two Johns Hopkins studies, Lancet 1 (2004) and Lancet 2 (2006) [1,2]. In contrast to the recent absurdly low mortality figures compiled by the Iraqi Ministry of Health and published in the NEJM [3], which I discussed in a recent post, the ORB statistics look like the best available until another thorough Lancet-style epidemiological survey is carried out.

The press release [DOC] of 28 January 2008 gives a more intimate perspective on these ghastly numbers:
Among the over 2,160 respondents who answered the question 20% said that there had been at least one death in their household as a result of the conflict which started in 2003. Within these households the average number of deaths was 1.26 people.
The data tables found in the New Casualty Tabs [PDF] break down the sources of death in a fashion approximately similar to Lancet 2 [PDF]. The responses to Question 2 ("How were they [members of the household] killed?") are interesting. They are divided into nine categories:

Car bomb
Other blast/ordnance
Aerial bombardment
Sectarian violence
Kidnapping and killing
Don't know/refused

Note the separate category for sectarian violence to which 4% of violent deaths are attributed. It is difficult to see why this was included. One is led to question the method by which the figures were derived. How is a "sectarian" death by gunshot separable from an "ordinary" death by gunshot? It is necessary to distinguish between the means of killing and the mode of killing. Otherwise there should be categories for "Killed by coalition forces," "Killed by mercenaries," "Killed by police," etc. The presence of sectarian violence as a category on this list is confusing and invites criticism.

After gunfire (40%), the largest number of deaths is attributed to car bombings (21%). That amounts to roughly 200,000 deaths resulting from this grisly tactic. The use of what the Pentagon refers to as "Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices" draws more attention than other forms of death. In Iraq we see it applied in the deadliest, most spectacular way. As Mike Davis tells us in his recent book Buda's Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb [3], it is a technology that has proliferated incredibly since its first deployment in 1920 when a horse-drawn wagon was exploded by the anarchist Mario Buda near New York's Wall Street. No continent, save Antarctica, has been spared the car bomb's devastation. Davis describes it as a weapon whose use is "guaranteed to leave its perpetrators awash in the blood of innocents," a "categorical censure" that applies "even more forcefully to the mass terror against civilian populations routinely inflicted by the air forces and armies of so-called 'democracies'."

ORB, a non-government-funded group founded in 1994, conducts research for the private, public and volunteer sectors. According to a 30 Jan 2008 Reuters report, the director of the group, Allan Hyde, said it had no objective other than to record as accurately as possible the number of deaths among the Iraqi population as a result of the invasion and ensuing conflict. And the numbers are staggering. So far, most of the mainstream media continue to ignore this objective attempt at a just accounting of mass death in Iraq.


1. Roberts L, Lafta R, Garfield R, Khudhairi J, Burnham G. Mortality before and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq: cluster sample survey. Lancet. 2004 Nov 20-26;364(9448):1857-64.

2. Burnham G, Lafta R, Doocy S, Roberts L. Mortality after the 2003 invasion of Iraq: a cross-sectional cluster sample survey. Lancet. 2006 Oct 21;368(9545):1421-8.

3. Davis, Mike. Buda's wagon : a brief history of the car bomb. London : Verso; 2007