Grim claim on fourth anniversary of conflict
ABC (Under)counting Iraqi Dead
ABC News is marking the anniversary of the start of the Iraq War this
week by reporting on its major survey of Iraqi public opinion. But
when it comes to one fundamental tally of the cost of the warthe
number of Iraqis who have been killed by the wartop ABC anchors are
minimizing the death toll.
On the Sunday morning show This Week (3/18/07), George Stephanopoulos
reported: "More than 3,200 U.S. military dead. At least 24,000
wounded. About 60,000 Iraqis killed." The next day on Good Morning
America, his ABC colleague Diane Sawyer mentioned almost the same
figures: "3,218 U.S. military fatalities and 24,042 U.S. wounded, not
to mention the some 60,000 Iraqis who have been killed."
No source was given for the 60,000 figure by either anchor. The
figure resembles the totals for Iraqi civilian deaths reported in
English-language news reports by the Iraqi Body Count (IBC) project:
between 59,326 and 65,160. (George W. Bush also appeared to rely on
IBC's figures when asked in December 2005 how many Iraqis had been
killed in the war; he gave the number of 30,000, which was close to
IBC's tally at the time.)
Using IBC's count as an estimate of how many Iraqis have died in the
war is sloppy reporting, however. For one thing, it is explicitly a
count of civilian deaths, ignoring Iraqi combatants who died either
resisting the U.S. invasion and occupation or defending the U.S.-
backed government. Estimates for the number of Iraqi combatants
killed in the initial invasion range from 7,600-10,800 (Project on
Defense Alternatives, 10/20/03) to 13,500-45,000 (London Guardian,
5/28/03); the total of Iraqis killed fighting the U.S. has surely
increased substantially in the four years that followed.
As for Iraqi forces allied with the U.S., the Iraq Coalition Casualty
Count website has counted 6,301 deaths of Iraqi police and military,
based on news reports, up to March 20, 2007. It's striking that even
these allied deathsnearly twice the number of U.S. forces killedare
often ignored in U.S. press accounts.
Any total based on official recordkeeping or news reports is almost
certainly going to be incompleteparticularly in a country like Iraq,
where reporters' well-grounded fear of being attacked by either side
results in them seldom venturing out of Baghdad (or into most
neighborhoods in Baghdad, for that matter). As IBC itself notes on
its website, "It is likely that many if not most civilian casualties
will go unreported."
In countries with functioning governmental institutions, reporters
can rely on official censuses or health records. In Iraq, however, a
proposed census was vetoed by the U.S. occupation government (Extra!,
34/04), and at this point it would probably be too dangerous to
conduct one. And the Iraqi Ministry of Health, which maintains
morgues and issues death certificates, has close ties to Shiite death
squads, according to the U.S. military, making it a questionable
source for casualty statistics (Extra! Update, 2/07). For what it's
worth, the United Nations reviewed government records and death
certificates and reported a civilian death toll of 34,000 for 2006
alone (New York Times, 1/17/07). And Iraqi Health Minister Ali al-
Shamari estimated in November 2006 that 100,000 to 150,000 Iraqis had
been killed by violent acts since early 2004.
The standard way to estimate death tolls in war-torn areas is to use
epidemiological surveys based on a random sampling of the population.
The United Nations made one such survey in 2004, estimating 24,000
war-related deaths in roughly the first year of the conflict. Using
that as a minimum annual figuresince it's recognized that violence
has greatly intensified since the first year of the occupation
produces roughly 100,000 as a conservative estimate of Iraqi deaths.
A comprehensive demographic survey by Johns Hopkins University
published in the medical journal Lancet (10/21/06) arrived at a much
higher death toll for the Iraq War: between 400,000 and 900,000
"excess" deaths by violence in Iraq-civilians and combatants-since
the beginning of the U.S. invasion, with 600,000 being the mostly
likely statistical estimate.
Given the difficulties inherent in gathering precise data on Iraqi
deaths, journalists should cite a plausible range of casualty
estimates, rather than using the lowest estimate availableas Sawyer
and Stephanopoulos have done.
In February, the Associated Press released a poll that found that
while the U.S. public knows the death toll for U.S. servicemembers in
Iraq, the median estimate for Iraqi deaths was 9,890. The findings
are a damning indictment of the corporate media's reporting on Iraq.
Journalists like Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos don't make
things any better by severely low-balling the number of Iraqis who
have died as a result of the war.
ACTION: Encourage ABC to use more accurate estimates of Iraqi deaths
when reporting on the issue. Ask them to explain how they arrived at
their 60,000 figure.