Iraq: the Human Cost


How Are So Many Fatalities Possible?

Precisely how so many people have been killed in Iraq is a natural question.While the survey is not designed to answer such a question, apart from general attributions, a few observations may be helpful in grasping the scale of mortality during the war.31

  • Much violence is occurring far from the view of journalists and widely cited mechanisms for counting the dead. Most Western reporters are based in Baghdad. Even there, large-scale events tend to gain attention, not the numerous but scattered incidences of violence that also occur.
  • Baghdad has one-fifth of the nation’s population, or about 5 million. Another 5 million live in the three Kurdish provinces in the north, which are relatively peaceful. Some 15 million live in the remainder of Iraq, and with the exception of Mosul, Kirkuk, and Basra, where there is some foreign press presence, Iraq is largely hidden from the view of Western journalism.32 This mortality survey also suggests much more violence is occurring outside Baghdad.
  • Those who read the Arabic press say that many incidences of violence are reported in such news media that are never reported in the English-language press.
  • The large rise in sectarian violence, and the survey’s findings regarding gunshots being the principal cause of death, correlate closely. They also reflect the reports of widespread assassinations. If, for example, there were three such killings daily in each of the 75 or so urban centers of Iraq33 (outside of Baghdad and the Kurdish north), the total for the 40 months covered by this survey would equal more than 270,000; four such killings daily in those 75 cities would equal 360,000 in that period.
  • The deaths attributed to actions by the coalition are a fraction of overall deaths, but are still significant. The U.S. air force and navy fly thousands of sorties annually as “close air support” of ground operations; how much ordnance is dropped is not reported. Thousands more helicopter gunship operations are flown. Between 200 million to one billion small-caliber rounds of ammunition or more have been expended in Iraq by the U.S. forces, and requirements for small and medium caliber ammunitions have risen steadily.34 It cannot be said what the significance of these numbers are for mortality, but they do indicate a very large scale of operations. Reports of rules of engagement that are assertive also lend credence to the probability of many tens of thousands of deaths (including insurgents).35
  • We know much more about U.S. and British operations than those of the irregular forces of Iraqis— especially the Sunni Arab insurgents and the Sunni and Shia militias. Here the difficulty of correlating deaths to operations is large.We do know that the numbers of weapons available to militias, criminals, and insurgents are high. According to one report, more than 4 million small arms and light weapons “went missing” after the March 2003 invasion.36
  • While not direct evidence of a scale of violence, the very large Iraqi majorities that blame the U.S. for the violence and support insurgent attacks on U.S. troops are both striking and indicative. The polls were conducted in Iraq on behalf of the State Department and Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland.37 Because the polls were large samples (1,870 and 1,150 respectively) and nationwide, they indicate just how widespread significant violence is in the country.

The war has presented many different challenges to those trying to understand its depth and range. It is unconventional in many respects—not least due to the dispersed and decentralized nature of the insurgents and militias, and the sectarian and ethnic animosities at work in addition to resistance to the occupation. Many aspects of the war are not reported or are reported inadequately. As a result, the overall picture we have of the course of the war has large gaps, and among those is the full extent and nature of violence. Nonetheless, there are plausible explanations for the large scale of violent deaths reported in the mortality survey.