Poor Iraq: First Mongols and Now Americans

As the saying goes, there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. The Bush administration has embraced this adage in Iraq, which has suffered one of the worst humanitarian crises to strike the Middle East since the Mongols sacked Baghdad.

That’s not an overstatement.

According to the London-based organization Iraq Body Count, civilian deaths recently stood at as many as 82,330, and the organization noted that 2007 has seen “the worst violence against civilians in Iraq” since the invasion.

The Iraq Interior Ministry is highly critical of the United Nations’ conclusion that 34,452 Iraqis died in 2006, calling the figures “inaccurate” and “unbalanced.” But it refuses to release its own figures. And the only sum the Bush administration has ever come up with is when the president commented to the press in December 2005 that the number of Iraqis killed was “30,000, more or less.”

As the U.S. military’s death toll from the Iraq War fast approaches the 4,000 mark, tragically, the Iraqi death toll is probably in the hundreds of thousands or even higher.

The first serious statistical investigation of the war’s impact was in a pair of surveys by Johns Hopkins University published in the British medical magazine The Lancet. According to the second of two studies, from the March 2003 invasion through September 2006, the number of deaths due to the war was 654,965. Over half of those were women and children.

Bush immediately dismissed the Johns Hopkins team’s methodology after its first survey was released in 2004 as “pretty well discredited.” The media has largely ignored its measure of the carnage in Iraq or accepted the White House’s characterization.

In fact, there is virtual unanimity among biostaticians and mortality experts that the methodology used in the Johns Hopkins study is accurate. Following up on an earlier version of the study, Lila Guterman, a senior reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education,says she contacted 10 experts in the field concerning the Lancet article about the first study, and “not one of them took issue with the study’s methods or conclusions.” Indeed, she said, the experts found the conclusions “cautious.”

Actually, the Bush administration used exactly the same methodology to determine the number of deaths in Darfur.

And a recent poll by the British agency Opinion Research Business (ORB) found that the war might have killed more than 1 million people, a toll that surpasses the 800,000 killed in the Rwandan genocide. The ORB used “excess mortality” as its measure, that is, deaths over and above mortality figures from the past.

Besides the deaths and injuries, the war had unleashed, according to the “Financial Times,” “The worst refugee crisis in the Middle East since the mass exodus of Palestinians that was part of the violent birth of the state of Israel in 1948.” According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, 2.2 million Iraqis have fled their country, mostly to Jordan and Syria, and another 2.2 million have been turned into internal refugees. If one adds to that the ORB figures for deaths, it means at least one-fifth of Iraqi’s pre-war population of 26 million has been killed, wounded, exiled, or displaced.

Meanwhile, some 75 percent of the country’s doctors and pharmacists have fled, bringing its medical system–at one time the best in the Arab world–to the point of collapse.

And finally, like a biblical plague, the World Health Organization reports that cholera is working itself down the country’s river system, from the Kurdish north to Basra in the south. Over 7,000 cases have been confirmed in northern Iraq.

In 1258, the Mongol general Hulagu Khan besieged and took the city of Baghdad. His forces murdered its inhabitants, burned its libraries, and ravished its lands. The Bush administration has done the same, but hidden the carnage behind a smokescreen of lies and voodoo statistics.

For the average Iraqi, there is little difference between the Mongols and the United States. Both have laid waste to their country.

Conn Hallinan is a Foreign Policy In Focus columnist.