A Question of Numbers

Anywhere between 80,000 and 1.2 million Iraqi civilians have died since the start of the war. Why won't the media report the correct number?

Unlike most journalists, Ziad al-Ajili carries an AK-47 assault rifle with him wherever he goes at night. The head of the Iraqi Journalistic Freedom Observatory, al-Ajili can't walk down the street without turning around every time he hears footsteps.

"It's too dangerous for journalists," says al-Ajili in a phone interview from Baghdad. "It's especially dangerous if you're a western journalist, but even if you're an Iraqi journalist, you can be shot anytime you go outside."

A Question of Numbers
Photo: Benjamin Lowy/Corbis

With more than 120 journalists killed since the start of the war, Iraq has become the most deadly combat zone for the media since the Second World War. The relentless violence has kept journalists from venturing into the deadly streets and from being able to tell the world how many Iraqi civilians have lost their lives in this bloodbath.

"It is very sad," says al-Ajili, who estimates that nearly half-a-million of his countrymen have been killed. "We are in hell, and nobody knows how many have died."

In a country where being a journalist is so dangerous that simply carrying a pen and notepad is reason enough to be killed, discovering the true number of civilian casualties can seem an impossible task. Most deaths in Iraq happen in inaccessible parts of the country, and Iraqi institutions responsible for the dead offer wildly divergent statistics. But while the number of civilian casualties is estimated to be anywhere between 80,000 and 1.2 million, the chaos that is keeping reporters from uncovering the real death toll is being exploited by the Pentagon.

Learning its lessons from Vietnam, where the exposure of civilian causalities turned the public against the war, the US military has either ignored or underreported civilian deaths. General Tommy Franks, who directed the Iraq invasion, famously said, "We don't do body counts." Refusing to acknowledge the dead, the one institution that has both the access and resources to find an accurate figure has worked to suppress the story. And since so many reporters have fallen under the spell of the military's sophisticated public relations machine, the media has come to accept that the death count is either unattainable or much lower than it really is.

Resigned to its limitations, the media has opted to quote Iraq Body Count's controversial claim of 80,000 deaths. Although IBC only counts a civilian death if it has been reported in at least two English media sources, journalists often use the figure since it doesn't stray too far from the US claim. However, the IBC's number stands in astronomical contrast from the 1.2 million dead Iraqis that the respected UK-based polling firm, Opinion Research Business (ORB), recently stated. The vast difference not only shows how confusing the count is, but highlights the media's own failings in exposing the true scope of the crisis.

When journalists quote the IBC, they are only referencing their own reports, while creating the illusion of a separate, reliable source. They also do so at the cost of quoting the ORB number or the 2006 Lancet medical journal survey that found roughly 650,000 civilian casualties. Although the Lancet study uses scientific methods that have been proven accurate everywhere from Darfur to Kosovo, journalists often downplay the results by contesting them with the manipulated US military figures.

Les Roberts, one of the two authors in the Lancet study, says many US journalists have fallen prey to post-9/11 patriotism or are too sheltered in their hotels to understand the extent of the havoc. But despite the challenges, Roberts insists journalists could verify the study by following his formula.

"Of all the scientific controversies of recent years, this one has got to be the easiest to evaluate," says Roberts. "How many Iraqi families would a journalist have to call to decide whether or not it's one in 40 people or whether it's one in 300 people that have died? The press, by and large, haven't been willing to do that."

After being fooled in the lead up to the Iraq War, the media are once again allowing the Bush administration to control the most crucial question of the war – how many innocent civilians lost their lives for a war based on lies? While public opinion can stomach minor causalities, it can rarely contain outrage when hundreds of thousands perish. Even in the chaos and connivance of Iraq, it's the responsibility of journalists to find a way to relay the truth about the carnage. The question now is whether the media are up to the job.

44 comments on the article “A Question of Numbers”

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mike scott

sean, the reason is simple, the truth is the truth and the truth will hurt so lets not tell the truth or people like you and other free thinking people will rebel and when that happens watch out.


What passes for mainstream media really tell us nothing of real importance. War is dulled down by endless stories about londe celebrities. Combative Sport is fed to our children so when told to kill they will. And our religions to keep us in line and not question authority. Regime Change Begins At Home.


I think that there is enough money being put into sending people over to Iraq, and considering the billions, the only thing they consider as progess is more deaths.

Mark Couke

Offical body counts from the U.S. are recorded by the soldiers themselves. Where reports are to be made of both American and Iraqi deaths. Rarely are the Iraqi deaths ever reported.


Sean Condon's article is so full of basic errors and omissions, that I think it should be rewritten. Here are some of the errors:

1. The Lancet 2006 study did not find roughly 650,000 civilian casualties as Condon claims. It estimated roughly 650,000 excess deaths, including combatants. The survey made no distinction between civilians and combatants. 2. Condon writes that Iraq Body Count IBC only count a civilian death if it has been reported in at least two English media sources. This is incorrect and misleading. IBC monitor around 70 nonwestern media sources daily, along with 120 western sources. To take a given day 2/10/06, IBC compiled material from agencies based in 7 countries USA, UK, France, Kuwait, Iraq, Germany, China. IBC utilises reports written or published in the English language, although not always originating in it. eg. material from the foreign language monitoring units of Middle East media, or the major Iraqi media. Note also that English language wire services such as Reuters and AP whose reports are compiled by IBC use reporters in Iraq who are predominantly Iraqi and whose reports are frequently what local Iraqi media rely on for daily news.

3. Condon writes that: the number of civilian casualties is estimated to be anywhere between 80,000 and 1.2 million. Again, this is misleading. The 80,000 figure approximately IBC's current count is not an estimate. IBC have always stated that they necessarily provide an undercount, since many if not most civilian casualties will go unreported by the media. The 1.2 million figure is an estimate by ORB of the total number of Iraqi citizens who have been murdered. In other words, this is not comparing like with like. Note also that ORB have revised their estimate downwards to the order of 1,033,000 Condon's 1.2 million figure is out of date. 4. Condon claims that the Lancet study uses scientific methods that have been proven accurate everywhere from Darfur to Kosovo. In fact these methods which were not designed for violent conflicts are not wellvalidated in war zones. The coauthor of the Lancet 2006 study, Gilbert Burnham, stated in an email to me that because so few surveys of this type have been conducted in conflict zones, and particularly in urban, middle development level countries such as Iraq, there is no standard for them. The notion that these methods have a proven record of accuracy in war zones is a myth. To say, as Condon does, that they've been proven accurate everywhere from Darfur to Kosovo is simply incorrect. 5. Condon writes that journalists who quote IBC are only referencing their own reports, while creating the illusion of a separate, reliable source. This is misleading and demonstrates a lack of understanding of IBC's work for one thing, their data is drawn not just from media reports, but also from hospital, morgue, NGO and other sources, wherever it can be integrated. Moreover, IBC's data has received confirmation from two studies which used methods similar to the Lancet study, but on a much bigger scale and with better quality control more on these studies below. 6. Omissions. Given that Condon's article is from the March/April 2008 Adbusters although I can't tell when it was written the absence of any reference to the recent World Health Organisation study is disappointing. This study used methods that were similar to Lancet 2006, but on a larger scale it surveyed 9345 households in 1086 clusters, compared to the Lancet 2006's 1849 households in 47 clusters. The WHO study estimated 151,000 violent deaths compared to Lancet 2006's 600,000 violent deaths over roughly the same period. The WHO study's findings are sharply at odds with Lancet 2006 over estimated violent deaths, and much closer to Iraq Body Count which records only civilian deaths; WHO, like Lancet, includes combatants. 7. Another omission is the United Nations Iraq Living Conditions Survey ILCS, 2004 another clustersampling study which dwarfs the two Lancet studies over 21,000 households surveyed. This found a much lower number of violent deaths in an overlapping period it estimated nearly 24,000 civilian deaths in the first 13 months of the conflict than is implied by Lancet 2004 study. 8. Condon refers to he respected UK-based polling firm, Opinion Research Business ORB as providing the 1.2 million estimate. ORB effectively subcontracted the Iraq polling work to the Independent Institute for Administration and Civil Society Studies. The person conducting the research, Munqeth Daghir, is reportedly a self-trained pollster who began his polling activities in 2003. Describing his early attempts at polling, Daghir says, I knew that Baghdad is distributed into nine different areas, and how many citizens lived in each one. But to tell the truth, I didn't know anything about the real random systematic sample. We did it randomly by going to any house we wanted to go to. So it wasn't a perfect sample.
9. ORB originally stated that their survey was based on a nationally representative sample. Later, they admitted that the survey was undertaken in primarily urban locations. Given that about a third of Iraqis live in rural areas, this is a significant omission, which ORB failed to disclose when the results were first published. ORB conducted a followup survey to correct this omission after receiving criticism on this point. As a result their estimated total was revised downwards from the figure Condon quoted.


Ok, so the media are presenting the wrong figure and the Bush administration is controlling the information. But since when 80.000 dead civilians is a small number? Why are we shocked if its 1.2 million but not if its 80.000? The real question for me is: since when did we as a society start needing bigger and more terrifying numbers to react?


Robert, although clearly well-informed and well-intentioned, misses the point. The point is not how many deaths there have been. The point is not and should not be about whether or not we should be counting all deaths, just combat deaths, civilian deaths. Alexandra asks the right question: Does it have to be 1.2 million in order to be an atrocity? Since when is it ever reasonable to precede the number 80,ooo with the adverb only. Only 80,000? I was speaking at an antiwar rally some months ago. I quoted the Lancet figure of more than 600,000 in five years. That number, if accurate, would include all the deaths that would not have happened had their not been an invasion by the United States. Deaths caused by the war and occupation not just directly combat related deaths. A young student approached me afterwards. We spoke for short time and he thanked me. As a Muslim, he had been to many discussions about the war. It was the first time he ever heard white, non-Muslim, ever mention the people that Americans were killing in Iraq. We shout about our body count, about the troops who have died. But the people they are killing, or whose death they are causing, that doesnt matter. Imagine how much anger that must engender? How much rage must be building when our antiwar activists, when the people want us out of the war, are incapable of acknowledging the harm they are doing and, in the moment of their most aggressive violence and wanton destructionthey think only of the harm they have suffered. Its like a hitman complaining that he needs to get out of the businesshe just cant handle the damage he is doing to the muscles of his trigger finger. And then he wonders why other people cant understand how much he has suffered. The point is not who has the best numbers or whose data is the most accurate. The point is that in the mainstream media we are constantly reminded of our own losses. Our dead soldiers matter. 9/11 matters. The tens of thousands of people who have died at our hands. The hundreds of thousands who have been made miserable by our actions. Those impacts dont matter. At least not in the general dialogue. We just dont care.

This argument is it 1.2 million or 600,000 or 80,000 should be one we see on the nightly news. It should show up in the debate between Hillary and Barrack. It doesn't. That's the issue.


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