Reporting the Iraq Body Count

The document is "A Dossier on Civilian Casualties in Iraq, 2003-2005" published by the non-profit group Iraq Body Count in association with Oxford Research Group.  My interest is in how the media around the world decided to report on this one dossier.

According to the press release, the highlights include:

Who was killed?

* 24,865 civilians were reported killed in the first two years.
* Women and children accounted for almost 20% of all civilian deaths.
* Baghdad alone recorded almost half of all deaths.

When did they die?

* 30% of civilian deaths occurred during the invasion phase before 1 May 2003.
* Post-invasion, the number of civilians killed was almost twice as high in year two (11,351) as in year one (6,215).

Who did the killing?

* US-led forces killed 37% of civilian victims.
* Anti-occupation forces/insurgents killed 9% of civilian victims.
* Post-invasion criminal violence accounted for 36% of all deaths.
* Killings by anti-occupation forces, crime and unknown agents have shown a steady rise over the entire period.

Let us see how these highlights were spun (or not at all) around the world.

In the first instance, Andres Oppenheimer made a comparison between the coverage in the United States and Latin America (in Miami Herald; July 21, 2005)

This week, Latin American newspapers across the political spectrum carried big headlines about reports from two British research groups, stating that the U.S.-led war with Iraq has cost nearly 25,000 civilian lives in that country.  The survey, by the Oxford Research Group and a pacifist group named Iraq Body Count, said an average of 34 civilians a day have been dying in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion.

The U.S.-led coalition forces caused 37 percent of these deaths -- including about 7,000 during the invasion. Street crime resulting from the breakdown of law and order claimed another 35 percent, and 22 percent died from insurgent attacks, the report said.

''Almost 25,000 civilians died since the start of the conflict, according to an independent investigation,'' read the headline in Argentina's influential daily La Nación. ''Death toll reaches 25,000'' was the headline in Reforma, Mexico's leading newspaper. ''The United States killed four times as many civilians as insurgents in Iraq,'' read the headline in Folha de Sao Paulo, one of Brazil's biggest newspapers.  Similarly, virtually all British dailies carried the story in full on July 20. The Independent ran a 1,000-word article under the headline, 'Iraq conflict claims 34 civilian lives each day as 'anarchy' beckons,'' while The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and most regional papers carried a news agencies' report or their own staff-written stories.

But in the U.S. press, the Iraq Body Count report got short shrift. From a search in in the Nexis-Lexis database, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times were among the few to carry staff-written stories on the report. The Washington Post mentioned it in passing, in the last paragraph of a story on the Iraq war, accompanied by a chart on civilian casualties.  Most other U.S. newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, the Houston Chronicle, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Herald didn't carry the story in their print editions. Most U.S. papers run almost daily tallies of the U.S. troop casualty toll, but only sporadically refer to Iraqi casualties.

[Note: Arianna Huffington via Yahoo! News: ... the Washington Post story ran on page A-18, the LA Times’ on page A-12, and the New York Times’ on A-8.]

From China:

(Xinhua)  UK civil count: 25,000 innocent lose lives in Iraq.  July 20, 2005.

A UK based research group, Iraq Body Count, has published a dossier of civilian deaths in the war-torn country. It sets the number of non-combatant lives lost since the beginning of the Iraq war at almost 25-thousand.  Covering the two year period from the commencement of the war on March 20th 2003, through the subsequent occupation and insurgency, the report's authors sourced their statistics largely from media reports of recognised outlets.  Volunteers have cross referenced and checked figures on the reports to arrive at the total.

Professor John Sloboda, one of the authors of the report said that by cataloguing the deaths his team hoped to quantify the casualties that were missed or ignored in official reports.  "When war seemed to be inevitable we decided that we wanted to record the most horrific cost of any war, which is the cost in innocent lives, and we were fearful that there would be many lives lost. We were also fearful that the governments prosecuting this war would not be doing an official count themselves. Both predictions unfortunately turned out to be true," said Sloboda.

In their report, more than half of the victims were killed by explosive devices - of these, 64 percent due to airstrikes.  And US forces were responsible for 37 percent of the 24,865 deaths catalogued in the dossier. 

Beyond the selective reporting of the data which reflects the implicit biases, there is a related subject.  When bad news arrive, the standard reaction is: "Shoot the messenger."  Xinhua and the Latin Americans don't have much beef against Iraq Body Count or the Oxford Research Group, and so they have nothing much to say.  But here is what the Americans and British have to say about them.  Where there are vehement objections, they may be the valid basis for the media to decline to air those data.

(Los Angeles Times)  Report Tallies Almost 25,000 Civilians Slain.  By Alissa J. Rubin.  July 20, 2005.

[Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank] said reports of the numbers of people killed and people wounded in war often blur together and that it is difficult to know "how many were really civilians."

Although Iraqbodycount is critical of the war, its reports have been recognized by experts as presenting carefully detailed data in addition to conclusions that reflect the authors' stance.  The new report is particularly vulnerable to the criticism raised by Cordesman that it may have counted some people as civilians who in fact were allied with the insurgency. In a guerrilla war, it is often difficult to tell who is a fighter and who is a passerby.

"Making that judgment is one of the most intricate things we do," said Hamit Dardagan, one of the study's authors. "We made a judgment based on the context of each article we reviewed, and most of our uncertainty about the numbers is due to that," he said.

(The New York Times)  Civilian Toll in Iraq Is Placed at Nearly 25,000.  By Hassan M. Fattah.  July 20, 2005.

The report, by a London-based group called Iraq Body Count, is a statistical tally of civilian deaths reported in the news media. In all, the researchers counted 24,865 civilians killed since the invasion of Iraq began in March 2003, almost half of them in Baghdad alone, with another large segment in Falluja.

There is no definitive account of how many civilians have died in Iraq, and the issue has long been contentious. Antiwar campaigners contend that the Bush administration and the Pentagon have deliberately avoided body counts so as to play down the toll the occupation has taken on Iraqis, while supporters of the war question the accuracy of the counts.

Partly as a result, tallies of the Iraqi dead - which have ranged as high as 100,000 in one study, published in October 2004 in The Lancet, the British medical journal - have not been compiled systematically.

Michael E. O'Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution who compiles a statistical abstract of Iraq to track its progress, or lack of it, under the occupation, said the Iraq Body Count figures were within the realm of reason. "We've used their data before," he said. "It's probably not too far off, and it's certainly a more serious work than the Lancet report." 

(The Times)  How not to count bodies.  By Stephen Pollard.  July 21, 2005.

SPLASHED ON THE front page of The Independent yesterday, was the figure 24,865. “Revealed: Iraq’s Civilian Death Toll”, read the headline.  It was not alone. The BBC’s bulletins ran with the same figure, as did the Daily Mirror and The Guardian — derived, said the latter, from “a detailed study of the human cost of the conflict”.

There is only one problem with the figure — not that you would know it from the credulous reporting. It is an entirely arbitrary figure published by political agitators.

The figure was released yesterday by two organisations, Iraq Body Count and the Oxford Research Group. According to the BBC, the former “is one of the most widely-quoted sources of information on the civilian death toll in Iraq”. Indeed it is — because the BBC itself reports its propaganda as fact.

One of the leading lights of the IBC is Marc Herold, a professor of economics and women’s studies at the University of New Hampshire. Professor Herold has attempted this trick before, when he “revealed” in December 2001 that there were then 3,800 civilian casualties in Afghanistan. The now-accepted figure at the time was two thirds less — about 1,200.  The reason his figures were so wrong then, and are almost certainly wrong now, is that the IBC’s methodology is designed to come to as large a total as possible. The organisation simply adds up all reports of casualties, no matter what the source or how scant the evidence. Hardly surprising, since the IBC’s associates are a veritable who’s who of anti-war activism.

The co-founder of IBC, John Sloboda, is also the director of the Oxford Research Group, an organisation “which seeks to develop effective methods whereby people can bring about positive change on issues of national and international security by non-violent means”. Translated, ORG is a lobbying group with a political agenda.  Professor Sloboda describes himself as having “worked with the Committee for Peace in the Balkans”. What that admirable title obscures is that the committee was, as he himself has put it, “essentially a lobbying and campaigning group against the Kosovo war”. Having opposed the liberation of Kosovo, he turned to Iraq.

The civilian costs of the war have been greater than its advocates expected. It does not help in getting to the truth, however, when parts of the media report partisan lobbying as fact.

(Newsweek)  Truth is the First Civilian Casualty.  By Rob Nordland.  July 23, 2005.

The most recent entry in this campaign is a report released on July 19 by Iraq Body Count. This Web-based group ( compiles news accounts of casualties in Iraq and tabulates them. "If journalism is the first draft of history, then this dossier may claim to be an early historical analysis of the military intervention's known human costs," the report's authors write. They tally 24,865 civilians reported killed between the invasion on March 20, 2003 and March 19, 2005. News reports of casualties in Iraq are often notoriously unreliable; Iraqi officials have no systematic means of disseminating and verifying casualty information, which is typically gleaned by the press from policemen and witnesses at the scene. The U.S. military generally refuses to give any civilian casualty information. Reported death tolls vary widely for the same incident. But leaving aside the reliability of this data, it's highly dubious to suggest, as this report clearly intends to do, that these deaths were the fault of the U.S. military presence in Iraq. The text of the report is decorated with pull quotes from news accounts of checkpoint killings and aerial bombardments. Even if U.S. troops didn't kill all these people, they're telling us, these civilians would not have died were it not for the U.S. presence. Is it the policeman's fault when the hostage taker kills his hostage?

In fact, a fair reading of the report's own data could support a completely contrary conclusion. Were it not for the insurgents, there would scarcely be much of a civilian death toll in Iraq now. A few isolated cases, yes, but nothing like the 8,000 civilians the Iraqi government says have died so far in 2005 from insurgent attacks. Fully 30 percent of the civilian fatalities Iraq Body Count records took place prior to May 1, 2003, when U.S. troops were actively engaged in the invasion and in subduing remnants of Saddam's army. During that military campaign, large numbers of Saddam Fedayeen and other irregular forces foght back from the cover of civilian dress, a violation of the laws and customs of warfare. Those who died were inevitably declared civilians by their loved ones. And such forces in most places represented the bulk of the resistance against the invasion; the uniformed Iraqi military for the most part deserted and fled. And Saddam's forces, both uniformed and not, systematically took refuge in schools, mosques, hospitals, and civilian neighborhoods, using those places as firebases—a guarantee that civilians would be killed in the process. In many places, coalition troops held their fire and slowed their advance for fear of causing greater civilian loss of life. In all, 6,616 civilian fatalities are listed by the report. Even if you make the dubious assumption that all of them were truly civilians, it is not surprising that so many died. Given the tactics of the enemy, it's surprising that so few did.

Another big chunk of the fatalities recorded in the report took place in April and November of 2004, mostly in Fallujah during the two U.S. military operations to subdue that community. No journalists were permitted in Fallujah, except where embedded with military forces, so all news accounts of fatalities were based on contacts made with Iraqi stringers in Fallujah, or on telephone contacts to the hospital there. Even Iraqi stringers were mostly locals; outsiders were forbidden entry by the insurgents. The hospital was an insurgent stronghold, even at one point used as a fire base, and its officials were insurgent propagandists; they insisted, for instance, that every single casualty they treated had been a civilian victim, a claim so implausible as to remind one of the hilarious pronouncements of Saddam's henchmen before and during the invasion. Iraqi stringers in Fallujah were nearly all local residents of the community, whose sympathies were entirely with the insurgents; their reports were next to worthless when it came to death tolls. At one point in April 2004, when Fallujah hospital officials were claiming more than 900 dead (a figure too incredible even to make it into the Iraq Body Count report), NEWSWEEK arranged for intermediaries to photograph the freshly dug graves in the cemetery, and we counted the headstones. There were 40 we could see, and Muslims do not normally wait around to bury their dead. Certainly there were probably other gravesites; but not 900 or even IBC's 600 for April 2004.

Consider the graph in the report detailing monthly deaths. It shows deaths attributed to US-led forces (again, using news report-compiled data of dubious validity) as dropping into the low two-figures for most of the war, excepting the Fallujah periods (and other less dramatic upticks for operations in Samarra and elsewhere). Again, even if you assume that all of these civilians were really civilians—which is difficult considering the insurgents are never uniformed except when masked in beheading videos—those are not huge numbers, especially considering the size of the undertaking, the number of soldiers, and the level of attacks. In December 2004, for instance, 15 civilians are listed killed by U.S.-led forces; during that same month there were 70-80 attacks per day on U.S. and Iraqi forces, according to confidential security reports compiled by coalition military sources that if anything underestimate the level of attacks. And in that same month, "anti-occupation forces, unknown agents and crime," as the report puts it, took the lives of 848 civilians.

The Iraq Body Count report goes through some interesting contortions to downplay the degree to which violence against civilians is predominantly caused by insurgent activity. U.S.-led forces alone, it says, killed 9,270 civilians, or 37.3 percent of the total (although it does not note at that point that 30 percent of that 37.3 percent was in the first six weeks of the war). Anti-occupation forces it blames for only 9.5 percent of the total, 2,353 civilians. Crossfires between insurgents and U.S. forces claim another 2.5 percent. And then most of the other deaths it attributes to "predominantly criminal killings" (35.9 percent) and "unknown agents" (11 percent). But it turns out that unknown agents are defined in the report as "those who appear to attack civilian targets lacking a clear or unambiguous link to the foreign military presence in Iraq. This may include some overlap with the groups above as well as with criminal murders." In other words, terrorists and insurgents. And the "predominantly criminal killings" are all those recorded in mortuaries, subtracting the normal pre-war murder rate from the totals. 

Talk about lies, damn lies and statistics. It's abundantly clear to anyone who has been in Iraq that the great majority of those murders are political assassinations, and most of those are by anti-occupation insurgents against any and everyone connected no matter how remotely to the U.S. occupation or the Iraqi authorities, from ministers to off-duty policemen to cleaning ladies. The "unknown agent" behind a roadside bomb that kills everyone within blast range is hardly Joe Hood, and certainly not Joe GI. No where in this report do we see any mention of the astounding atrocities committed by the insurgents—the triple suicide car bombing at a sewage treatment facility that killed 40 children in 2004, or another suicide bombing last week that killed 28 children, lining up in both cases to receive treats from U.S. soldiers (only one of whom was killed, in the second instance). In fact, a much fairer rendering of IBC's own statistics would suggest that at worst 9.8 percent of these fatalities could be attributed to U.S.-led forces, another 32.5 percent to the fog of war, crossfires and the like, and the remaining 42.3 percent to insurgents and terrorists. And even that assumes, falsely, that all of these civilians were really civilians.

More pernicious still is the now-famous Lancet report, ("Mortality before and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq: cluster sample survey" at journals/lancet/article/ PIIS0140673604174412/abstract) which the respected British medical journal billed as "the first scientific study of the effects of this war on Iraqi civilians." Produced by epidemiologists and public-health professionals and based on a hastily taken field survey in various locations in Iraq led by Johns Hopkins' School of Public Health researcher Les Roberts, this peer-reviewed article purported to show that 98,000 more Iraqis died in the 18 months after the war, based on death rates in the same areas in the year before the war. Further, the leading cause of death was violence, and Iraqis (other than those in Falluja) were 1.5 times more likely to die after the invasion, than before it. Few of the news reports on this study, however, noted what even the study itself did: that the margin of error for these statistics renders them practically meaningless. In the case of the death toll of an additional 98,000 persons, the authors call this a "conservative estimate" based on the data, but also report a 95 percent Confidence Interval (CI), of from 8,000 to 194,000, essentially a range of error. In other words, there is a 95 percent chance that the excess deaths were between 8,000 and 194,000. And the CI or Confidence Interval was 95 percent that the risk of death had increased by from 1.1 times to 2.3 times after the invasion; 1.5 times being a midpoint— again, a range that renders it meaningless. That CI was so broad simply because the survey's sample was relatively small. As one of the report's peer reviewers, Sheila Bird, wrote in a comment in The Lancet, "Wide uncertainty qualifies the central estimate of 98000 excess deaths, so that the survey results are consistent (just) with the true excess being as low as 8000 or as high as 194000." But she goes on to say that outside data and expert opinion make the 98,000 figure more likely, citing specifically the data from (where else?) Iraq Body Count.

Again this is before even considering whether those killed might have been civilians or civilian-dressed insurgents. The Lancet report does confirm for instance, that, "Many of the Iraqis reportedly killed by U.S. forces could have been combatants." And it added "it is not clear if the greater number of male deaths was attributable to legitimate targeting of combatants who may have been disproportionately male, or if this was because men are more often in public." Take another much-cited study, by the group CIVIC headed by anti-war activist Marla Ruzika, who was herself killed in Iraq by a suicide bomber (a detail not usually mentioned in the many anti-war websites that laud her work). CIVIC's field surveys counted 1,573 men killed compared to 493 women in the first 150 days of the war — and 95 percent of them died in the first two weeks. 

All of these reports are far too politically motivated for their researchers to use their own data fairly. The Lancet for instance took the unusual step of posting its study on its Web site in advance of publication, on Oct. 29, 2004, clearly in order to be disseminated in advance of the U.S. elections—as the journal even implicitly acknowledges. In a way, the U.S. administration has itself to blame. The military has refused to issue estimates of Iraqis killed in military operations—as Gen. Tommy Franks famously declared, "we don't do body counts." (Mindful no doubt of how in the Vietnam War, U.S. body counts of Viet Cong dead at some point exceeded the country's population.) And when there have been killings of civilians by U.S. troops, military investigations have typically been whitewashes, usually with no effort even made to interview Iraqi eyewitnesses. This was the case, for instance, in a military review of the aerial bombing of a wedding party in Qaim, Iraq, on May 19, 2004. Survivors interviewed by journalists included some of the wedding musicians and numerous relatives of the bride and groom, who both were among the 40 dead. The military insists to this day that they hit an insurgent staging area out in the desert, based on "actionable intelligence", and it concluded its investigation without having interviewed any of the Iraqi eyewitnesses. Small wonder so many people are willing to believe the nonsense being peddled by anti-war statisticians about the human cost of this awful war.

All of this in fact uninteresting and unsurprising.  This state of affairs was predictable when the occupation authority decided not to release civilian casualty figures from the very beginning.  From then on, they can count on fuzziness to never be held accountable.  That was what they expected, and that was what they achieved.  Mission accomplished, indeed.

At this point, I have no interest in slogging through the statistical arguments.  By now, my focus is very reductionistic -- I will only follow a small number of case studies.  For example, do you remember the case of The Wedding Party at Mogr el-Deeb?  On one side, the Iraqis claimed that the Americans attacked a wedding party and killed musicians, women and children.  On the other side, Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt insisted that this was a den of terrorists.  Both sides presented evidence (videos, photographs, etc).  To resolve the controversy, Kimmitt promised an "open and honest" investigation by the U.S. military.  That promise was made in May 2004.  Nothing ... and I mean NOTHING ... has been heard about that "open and honest" investigation, and nobody in the western media has asked for it either.  And that is the kind of thing that I keep track of.