IRAQI CIVILIAN DEATHS: A Statistical & Political Controversy

July 23, 2011

A reading followed by an inquiry exercise invites student scrutiny of four different estimates of Iraqi civilian deaths.

To the Teacher:

American soldiers who die in Iraq are reported by the military and named in U.S. media. Their cumulative totals are recorded, and often the soldiers' family members and friends are interviewed. But Iraqi civilians who are killed in far greater numbers often go uncounted and unnamed. Their families almost always remain anonymous. Recently, a survey by Johns Hopkins University estimated some 655,000 Iraqi civilians had died as a result of the U.S. invasion. The survey, reported in the British medical journal Lancet, generated a good deal of media attention before it faded, without resolution or any move to conduct an independent and impartial survey to confirm the facts.
The student reading below includes reports from the Johns Hopkins survey and three other sources on Iraqi civilian deaths and invites student scrutiny of them. At a time when competing statistical evidence is used to support differing points of view on the Iraq war, the reading asks students to examine this evidence. An exercise following the reading calls for an inquiry process of answering and asking questions. In this connection, see also "Thinking Is Questioning" and "Teaching Critical Thinking," which are available on this website.

Student Reading:

Competing statistics on Iraqi civilian deaths

How many Iraqi civilians have died as a result of the U.S. invasion of Iraq? This seemingly simple question has produced wildly different estimates.
Asked at a news conference about Iraqi civilian deaths, President Bush answered, "I would say 30,000, more or less, have died as the result of the initial incursion and the ongoing violence against Iraqis." (12/14/05) Later the president's press secretary, Scott McClellan, said that he was "citing public estimates, not a government-produced figure." There is no U.S. government figure.
Three November 2006 surveys, admittedly almost a year later, produced very different results.
The "Iraq Body Count" estimated a minimum of 47,781 and a maximum of 53,014 civilian war-related violent deaths (these figures are from November 27, 2006; they rise daily). This organization, an independent group of researchers and biostatisticians based in England, declares that it is "the only independent and comprehensive public data base of media-reported civilian deaths in Iraq." Its compilation is based on reports from a range of recognized media sources, all listed on its website. The organization also reports: (1) "On the ground uncertainties and potential political bias can result in a range of figures for the same incident." (2) "It is likely that many if not most civilian casualties will go unreported in the media." (
The Iraqi health minister, Ali al-Shemari, estimated that 150,000 civilians, including police and kidnapped people, had been killed in the war. Al-Shemari later said he based his figure on the approximately 100 bodies daily brought to hospitals and morgues. However, hospitals and morgues often provide conflicting numbers of civilian deaths. The head of the Baghdad central morgue, Dr. Abdul Razzaq al-Obaidi, said his facility was receiving "as many as 60 violent death victims each day." He added that this number does not include bodies taken to hospital morgues and those removed for quick burial in accordance with Muslim custom. (, 11/9/06)
Another study produced the largest and most controversial number. The survey, conducted by Johns Hopkins University and reported in the British medical journal Lancet, estimated some 655,000 Iraqi civilians had died as a result of the U.S. invasion. (However, the study allows for an error margin of about 300,000 deaths.) For the survey, Iraqi physicians visited 1,849 randomly selected households between May 20 and July 10, 2006. The Iraqi doctors asked one person in each household about household deaths in the 14 months before the invasion and in the months since. The results were that the Iraqi mortality rate before the invasion was 5.5 deaths per thousand, a finding similar to that estimated by the U.S. Census Bureau and the CIA. In the post-invasion period researchers found the mortality rate to be 13.3 deaths per thousand.
According to the survey, 601,000 of the deaths resulted from violence, the rest from war-related disease or other causes. Of the violent deaths, 56% came from gunshot wounds, 14% from car bombs and other explosives, and 31% from coalition forces and air strikes.
The survey's sampling technique is one widely used to estimate deaths from famines, diseases, and other disasters. The work of the Iraqi physicians was overseen by epidemiologists from Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health with cooperation from the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. An earlier and equally controversial Johns Hopkins University study in 2004 estimated an Iraqi civilian death toll of 100,000.
The Iraq Body Count criticized the survey for several reasons. It noted that the survey's findings imply that on average 1,000 Iraqis have been violently killed every day in the first half of 2006óbut "less than a tenth" of these have been reported by any official Iraqi source. "The authors have drawn conclusions from unrepresentative data. In addition, totals of the magnitude generated by this study are unnecessary to brand the invasion and occupation of Iraq a human and strategic tragedy."
"I don't consider it a credible report," said President Bush. "Neither does General [George] Casey [the top-ranking military official in Iraq], and neither do Iraqi officials. The methodology is pretty well discredited." (, 10/11/06)
Dr. Ronald Waldman, an epidemiologist at Columbia University who worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for many years, called the survey method "tried and true," adding "This is the best estimate we have."
Rebecca Goldin of George Mason University wrote that professional statisticians are "in agreement over the statistical methods used and the validity of the conclusions drawn by the researchers conducting the study. (
Responding to a criticism by Iraq Body Count, Les Roberts, an author of the Johns Hopkins study, said that there have to be about "300 deaths per day from natural causes even if Iraq was the healthiest 26 million people in the world. Where are those bodies?" He argued that "almost nothing" in the way of civilian deaths is reported outside Baghdad. He suggested that if reporters went at random to four to six Iraqi village graveyards, they would find four to five times more bodies buried weekly compared to pre-war burials in 2002. Unfortunately, it would be difficult to find reporters who would be willing to risk their lives by going out into the dangerous Iraq countryside.
BBC News said in its report on the study: "Some critics say that the report's author and the editor of the Lancet, Richard Horton, has a political agenda in opposing the war in Iraq and that therefore this should be taken into consideration when discussing this work. In turn of course some of the critics tend to be politically committed themselves." (, 10/20/06) The complete Johns Hopkins report, in PDF format, is here.

For discussion, inquiry and writing

1. Examine closely each of the four statistics on Iraqi civilian deaths from President Bush, Iraq Body Count, the Iraqi health minister, and the Johns Hopkins survey. In each case, consider the following questions:
  • What is the source of the statistic?
  • What is the authority or qualifications of the individual or group providing statistics?
  • How was the information for the statistic gathered?
  • Is there any reason to suspect bias by the individual or group providing the statistic? If yes, does the bias invalidate the information completely? partially? not at all?
  • What other reasons might there be to question the statistic?
  • Why do you suppose that the number of Iraqi civilian deaths should become a political issue? Why might supporters of the war favor lower estimates of those deaths than opponents and vice versa?
These questions should generate other questions that can become the basis for study. If students need more information about sources, qualifications, processes, or possible biases, where might they find it? Divide students into inquiry groups to locate information and report their findings to the class.
2. The following might be used for a writing assignment, as well as for follow-up discussion:
The reading presents four answers to the question that begins the reading. Which answer do you think is closest to being accurate? Why? If you don't think any answer is reasonably satisfactory, why not?
This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: