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650,000 dead given voice in Congress
Tuesday, 12 December 2006 06:06
by Stephen Soldz

I just watched the Congressional briefing on the Lancet Iraqi casualty study: "650,000 excess deaths in Iraq". Speaking were Gilbert Burnham, Les Roberts, and Juan Cole. The briefing was organized by Rep, Kucinich, with the support of rep. Ron Paul.

The briefing was to discuss the October 2006 study Mortality after the 2003 invasion of Iraq: a cross-sectional cluster sample survey,which appeared in the British medical journal The Lancet. This study estimated that 655,000 more Iraqis had died ("excess deaths") since the invasion than would have died if the prewar rate of death (mortality) had continued. It further estimated that about 600,000 of these had died from violence.

I have great respect for Rep. Kucinich, who kept the entire briefing focused on the effects of the fighting on the Iraqi people and on Iraqi society. It is the first time I've seen anyone from the U.S. government focus on Iraqis and what they have experienced and what they are suffering. For example, he asked about the effects on Iraqi society of the loss of so many young men. He also asked about the creation of Iraqi orphans. Unfortunately, none of the three scholars had any real information on these topics, a sign of how little we really know about what is going on in that unfortunate country.

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I thought Burham and Roberts did an excellent job of presenting the study. While this was not a methodological seminar, Burham said that they were well aware of the potential for bias and spent months designing the sample design so as to include all households. This declaration constitutes an explicit statement that the so-called "Main Street Bias" proposed by British scientists is not present to any meaningful degree. One may question the honesty of the Lancet study authors, but speculation about a massive MSB after such a definitive statement does require questioning their integrity.

Juan Cole, of the Informed Comment blog, presented various evidence from the media and other sources that supported the Lancet authors' position that the vast majority of deaths are not presented in the press, making the results of this study less surprising. Roberts pointed to the statements in the new Iraq Study Group report that the US military had radically underreported the extent of violence in Iraq. In particular, as the Associated Press put it, the report stated:

"The panel pointed to one day last July when U.S. officials reported 93 attacks or significant acts of violence. 'Yet a careful review of the reports for that single day brought to light 1,100 acts of violence,' it said."

If, on average, one Iraqi died in each such attack, the mortality rate would be greater than that in the Lancet study. Thus, the reported rates are not implausible, as many critics claim.

Of course, the fact that the mortality rates are not implausible does not mean that they are therefore correct. While many epidemiologists and others have defended the study, some experts in this area, most notably the eminent Norwegian researcher Jon Pedersen have criticized the study. Like all studies on important matters, this one does deserve careful scrutiny. But it does not deserve to be dismissed by the press in a way that similar studies with results more comfortable to the United States government are not dismissed. The existence of "controversy" should not be an excuse to ignore that, as a consequence of U.S. government action, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have needlessly died.

Les Roberts again made the point that their data implies that the majority of deaths in Iraq are from violence, whereas alternative accounts from Iraq Body Count, the Brookings Institution, or the Iraq Ministry of Health imply that only a small percentage, perhaps 10%, of deaths in Iraq are from violence. He again, as he has done since the study came out in early October, has called upon the press to visit graveyards and ask if the majority of deaths is from nonviolent or violent causes. Roberts again called, as these authors did after their 2004 study, for another research group to investigate the Iraqi mortality rate and confirm or invalidate the Lancet study. It is disturbing that, in the two years between theses researchers' 2004 and 2006 studies, no other group did attempt such a replication. Given the numbers of surveys conducted in Iraq on other controversial issues, such as attitudes toward attacks on Coalition troops, it should he relatively easy for this study to be replicated. Perhaps all of us, whatever our evaluation of this study, can echo these calls to the press and to other survey researchers.


Movingly, Rep. Kucinich ended the briefing by emphasizing "the imperative of human unity" "that we recognize the imperative of human security,… that each of us has a right to survive." And: "It is an imperative to focus on the imperative of peace. War is not inevitable."

Kucinich seems among the very few in the public arena who realize what is truly at stake for the human race in an era of modern technology. Given the nature of this technology of warfare, either Rep. Kunich's call will be heeded or one of the continual conflicts will spark an all out war that will destroy us all.

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