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The US Has Killed 100,000 in Iraq: The Lancet
by Juan Cole
October 30, 2004
First Published in Informed Comment

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The Lancet, a respected British medical journal, reports that the US and coalition forces (but mainly the US Air Force) has killed 100,000 Iraqi civilians since the fall of Saddam on April 9, 2003. Previous estimates for civilian deaths since the beginning of the war ranged up to 16,000, with the number of Iraqi troops killed during the war itself put at about 6,000.

The troubling thing about these results is that they suggest that the US may soon catch up with Saddam Hussein in the number of civilians killed. How many deaths to blame on Saddam is controversial. He did after all start both the Iran-Iraq War and the Gulf War. But he also started suing for peace in the Iran-Iraq war after only a couple of years, and it was Khomeini who dragged the war out until 1988. But if we exclude deaths of soldiers, it is often alleged that Saddam killed 300,000 civilians. This allegation seems increasingly suspect. So far only 5,000 or so persons have been found in mass graves. But if Roberts and Burnham are right, the US has already killed a third as many Iraqi civilians in 18 months as Saddam killed in 24 years.

The report is based on extensive household survey research in Iraq in September of 2004. Les Roberts and Gilbert Burnham found that the vast majority of the deaths were the result of US aerial bombardment of Iraqi cities, which they found especially hard on "women and children." After excluding the Fallujah data (because Fallujah has seen such violence that it might skew the nationwide averages), they found that Iraqis were about 1.5 times more likely to die of violence during the past 18 months than they were in the year and a half before the war. Before the war, the death rate was 5 per thousand per year, and afterwards it was 7.9 per thousand per year (excluding Fallujah). My own figuring is that, given a population of 25 million, that yields 72,500 excess deaths per year, or at least 100,000 for the whole period since April 9, 2003.

The methodology of this study is very tight, but it does involve extrapolating from a small number and so could easily be substantially incorrect. But the methodology also is standard in such situations and was used in Bosnia and Kosovo.

I think the results are probably an exaggeration. But they can't be so radically far off that the 16,000 deaths previously estimated can still be viewed as valid. I'd say we have to now revise the number up to at least many tens of thousand--which anyway makes sense. The 16,000 estimate comes from counting all deaths reported in the Western press, which everyone always knew was only a fraction of the true total. (I see deaths reported in al-Zaman every day that don't show up in the Western wire services).

The most important finding from my point of view is not the magnitude of civilian deaths, but the method of them. Roberts and Burnham find that US aerial bombardments are killing far more Iraqi civilians than had previously been suspected. This finding is also not a surprise to me. I can remember how, on a single day (August 12), US warplanes bombed the southern Shiite city of Kut, killing 84 persons, mainly civilians, in an attempt to get at Mahdi Army militiamen. These deaths were not widely reported in the US press, especially television. Kut is a small place and has been relatively quiet except when the US has been attacking Muqtada al-Sadr, who is popular among some segments of the population there. The toll in Sadr City or the Shiite slums of East Baghdad, or Najaf, or in al-Anbar province, must be enormous.

I personally believe that these aerial bombardments of civilian city quarters by a military occupier that has already conquered the country are a gross violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, governing the treatment of populations of occupied territories.

* Spencer Ackerman at TNR's online blog on Iraq has a long interview with Burnham about the study, in which Burnham is quite humble about it not being definitive.

Juan Cole is Professor of History at the University of Michigan. His books include Sacred Space And Holy War: The Politics, Culture and History of Shi'ite Islam and Broken Wings: A Novel. This article first appeared in his weblog Informed Comment, Thoughts on the Middle East, History, and Religion. He can be reached at:

Other Articles by Juan Cole

* Iran in Bush's Sights