Iraq War 15 years on: counting the dead

A US marine passes by the dead body of an Iraqi man in Fallujah in 2004..

March 19 marks 15 years since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the US people have no idea of the enormity of the calamity the invasion unleashed.

The US military has refused to keep a tally of Iraqi deaths. General Tommy Franks, the man in charge of the initial invasion, bluntly told reporters: “We don’t do body counts.”

A 2007 survey found most Americans thought Iraqi deaths were in the tens of thousands. But our calculations, using the best information available, show a catastrophic estimate of 2.4 million Iraqi deaths since the 2003 invasion.

The number of Iraqi casualties is not just a historical dispute, because the killing is still going on today. Since several major cities in Iraq and Syria fell to Islamic State in 2014, the US has led the heaviest bombing campaign since the US war in Vietnam, dropping 105,000 bombs and missiles and reducing most of Mosul and other contested Iraqi and Syrian cities to rubble.

An Iraqi Kurdish intelligence report estimated that at least 40,000 civilians were killed in the bombardment of Mosul alone, with many more bodies still buried in the rubble. A recent project to remove rubble and recover bodies in just one neighbourhood found 3353 more bodies, of whom only 20% were identified as ISIS fighters and 80% as civilians. Another 11,000 people in Mosul are still reported missing by their families.

Of the countries where the US and its allies have been waging war since 2001, Iraq is the only one where epidemiologists have actually conducted comprehensive mortality studies.

Two such reports on Iraq came out in the prestigious The Lancet medical journal, first in 2004 and then in 2006. The 2006 study estimated that about 600,000 Iraqis were killed in the first 40 months of war and occupation in Iraq, along with 54,000 non-violent but still war-related deaths.

The US and British governments dismissed the report, saying that the methodology was not credible and that the numbers were hugely exaggerated. In countries where Western military forces have not been involved, however, similar studies have been accepted and widely cited without question or controversy.

Based on advice from their scientific advisers, British government officials privately admitted that the 2006 Lancet report was “likely to be right”. But because of its legal and political implications, the US and British governments led a cynical campaign to discredit it.

In June 2007, a British polling firm, Opinion Research Business (ORB), conducted a further study and estimated that 1,033,000 Iraqis had been killed by then.  

Just Foreign Policy’s “Iraqi Death Estimator” updated the Lancet study’s estimate by multiplying passively reported deaths compiled by British NGO Iraq Body Count by the same ratio found in 2006. This project was discontinued in September 2011, with its estimate of Iraqi deaths standing at 1.45 million.

Taking ORB’s estimate of 1.033 million killed by June 2007, then applying a variation of Just Foreign Policy’s methodology from July 2007 to the present using revised figures from Iraq Body Count, we estimate that 2.4 million Iraqis have been killed since 2003 as a result of the US’s illegal invasion. This includes an estimated minimum of 1.5 million and maximum of 3.4 million deaths.

These calculations cannot possibly be as accurate or reliable as a rigorous up-to-date mortality study, which is urgently needed in each of the countries afflicted by war since 2001.  But in our judgment, it is important to make the most accurate estimate we can.

As we begin the 16th year of the Iraq war, the US public must come to terms with the scale of the violence and chaos we have unleashed in Iraq. Only then may we find the political will to bring this horrific cycle of violence to an end.

[Abridged from Alternet. Medea Benjamin is cofounder of the peace group CodePink. Her latest book is Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the U.S.-Saudi Connection (2016). Nicolas JS Davies is a researcher with CODEPINK, and the author of Blood On Our Hands: the American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq.]

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