We are now able to estimate the number of Iraqis who have died in the U.S.-instigated war during George W. Bush’s presidency.  Looking at the empirical evidence of his war legacy will put his claims of victory in his final days in perspective. 

Even by his own standards—“stability” in Iraq—the jury is out.  Most independent analysts would say it’s too soon to judge the political outcome.  Nearly six years after the invasion, the country remains riven by sectarian politics and major, unresolved issues like the status of Kirkuk. 

We have a better grasp of the human costs of the war.  For example, the U.N. estimates that there are about 4.5 million displaced Iraqis—more than half of them refugees—or about one in every six citizens, a very high number.  Only 5 percent have chosen to return to their homes over the past year, a period of reduced violence from the high levels of 2005-07.  The reliable availability of health care, clean water, functioning schools, jobs, and so forth remains elusive.  According to UNICEF, many provinces report less than 40 percent of households have access to clean water.  In major cities like Basra and Baghdad, about half or more of children cannot attend schools.

Those conditions—chronic and showing few signs of change for the better—are one legacy of the war.  Their effects will persist for many years, not least in the malnutrition and lack of education for children.  Many of those same children are without one or more parents, too, because the mortality caused by the war is also high. 

How high?  Several household surveys were conducted in Iraq between 2004 and 2007 to gather data on mortality.  While there are differences among them—as one would expect in the midst of war—the range suggests a general congruence of estimates.  But none has been conducted for 18 months, and the two most reliable surveys were completed in mid-2006.  The higher of those found 650,000 “excess deaths,” mortality attributable to war; the other survey’s data yields 400,000 excess deaths.

The war remained ferocous for about 12-15 months after those surveys were finished and then began to subside, though violence remains at troubling levels in many parts of the country.  Iraq Body Count (IBC), a NGO in London that uses English-language press reports from Iraq to count civilian deaths, provides a means to bring the 2006 estimates up-to-date.  While it is known to be an undercount, because press reports are incomplete and Baghdad-centric, IBC nonetheless provides useful trends. 

The trend line is rather striking.  IBC’s estimates are now nearing 100,000.  In June 2006, it was about 45,000.  That indicates a doubling of the total deaths attributable to violence among civilians.  (It does not count non-violent excess deaths—from health emergencies, for example—nor deaths of insurgents.)  If this is an acceptable marker, a plausible estimate of total deaths can be calculated by doubling the totals of the two 2006 household surveys, which used a much more reliable and sophisticated method for estimates that draws on long experience in epidemiology. 

So we have, at present, between 800,000 and 1.3 million “excess deaths” in this war as we approach its six-year anniversary

This gruesome figure tracks closely to what we know from other wars, in which the number of deaths compared with the number of displaced typically hovered around 1-to-5 or less.  It also makes sense when reading of claims by current Iraqi officials that there are between one and two million war widows in Iraq (reaching back to previous conflicts), and 5 million orphans. 

This constitutes direct empirical evidence of total excess mortality and indirect, though confirming evidence of the displaced, the bereaved, and general insecurity in the country.  These are the results of the war that we know.   And the overall figures are stunning: 4.5 million displaced, 1-2 million widows, 5 million orphans, about one million dead—in one way or another, affecting nearly one in every two people in Iraq with tragically life-altering (or ending) impacts. 

By any sensible measure, it would be difficult to describe this as victory of any kind.  It speaks volumes about the repair work we must do for Iraqis, and in the Arab and Muslim world more generally.  And it should caution is against the savage wars we are prone to, even as the drum roll for attacks against other countries picks up. 

Now that Bush is gone, perhaps the United States can face honestly the damage we have wrought, and the responsibilities that we must learn from it.   

--John Tirman

A version of this article appears in The Nation, February 16, 2009

IRAQ: the Human Cost, MIT