Air war in Iraq

Not surprisingly, the publication by the Lancet of new estimates suggesting that over 600 000 people have died (mostly violently) in Iraq, relative to what would have been expected based on death rates in the year before the war, has provoked violent controversy. A lot of the questions raised about the earlier survey, estimating 100 000 excess deaths in the first year or so appear to have been resolved. In particular, the lower bound estimate is now around 400 000, so that unless the survey is rejected completely, there can be no doubt about catastrophic casualties.

One number that is striking, but hasn’t attracted a lot of attention is the estimated death rate from air strikes, 13 per cent of the total or between 50 000 and 80 000 people. Around half the estimated deaths in the last year of the survey, from June 2005 to June 2006. That’s at least 25 000 deaths, or more than 70 per day.

Yet reports of such deaths are very rare. If you relied on media reports you could easily conclude that total deaths from air strikes would only be a few thousand for the entire war. The difference between the numbers of deaths implied by the Lancet study and the reports that shape the “gut perceptions” that the Lancet must have got it wrong are nowhere greater than here. So are the numbers plausible?

I recall seeing only a handful of mentions of air strikes in the mainstream press. In checking my perceptions on this, I found this piece by Norman Solomon (linked by by Dahr Jamil) who notes that a search for “air war” produces zero results for the NYT, Washington Post and Times. Solomon refers to the earlier New Yorker article by Seymour Hersh who makes the same point.

The best source turns out to be the US Air Force Command itself. For October and November 2005, the US Air Force recorded 120 or more air strikes, and this number was on an increasing trend. Most of the strikes appear to be in or near urban areas, and the recorded examples include Hellfire missiles fired by Predators, an F-16 firing a thousand 20mm cannon rounds and an F-15 reported to have fired three GBU-38s, the new satellite-guided 500-pound bomb designed for support of ground troops in close combat. Typical reports of air strikes involve the destruction of buildings in which suspected insurgents are seen taking shelter, or from which fire has been reported. Obviously there is no opportunity to check whether such buildings are occupied by civilians.

An average of 10 fatalities for each air strike seems plausible. If we assume the average number of US plane and missile strikes for the year as a whole was 150 per month, that’s 18000 fatalities per year. Taking into account strikes by British and other allied forces and by attack helicopters (which seem to be used a lot, but are also rarely reported) it seems likely that Coalition air strikes killed more than 20 000 people in 2005-06.

That’s below the Lancet range of estimates, but in the same ballpark. To explain the gap, I’d suggest that it’s likely that the cause of death has been reported wrongly (or at least, inconsistently with official US accounts) in some cases. I’ve seen quite a few cases where Iraqis have blamed US air strikes for deaths, while the US authorities have denied that there were any strikes in the area and have blamed the deaths on insurgent mortar attacks. That seems to suggest that deaths attributed to air strikes may actually have been caused by artillery on one side or the other.

In summary, allowing for some misclassification, it seems likely that Coalition air and ground forces have killed between 100 000 and 200 000 people since the war began. The majority of these are military age males, most of whom would have been targeted as suspected insurgents, although we have no real idea how many actually were insurgents and how many were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Around 70 per cent of all violent deaths in the Lancet survey were of military age males, and presumably the proportion would be higher for the Coalition since they are at least trying to avoid civilian casualties. But even if 80 per cent of those killed were insurgents, that would leave somewhere between 20 000 and 40 000 innocent civilians killed by Coalition forces so far. And of course, the figure also implies that even after 80 000 to 160 000 suspected insurgents have been killed, the situation is going backwards.

For more reactions, see Tim Lambert.

44 thoughts on “Air war in Iraq

  1. Hi John,

    I was a little surprised when I read about the figures on Cole’s blog. A few days ago I read the paper and I’m uneasy about one thing.

    They sent teams to interview 12000 people across Iraq. Including areas dominated by the insurgency and in which the US has no control on the ground. These areas reported the “>10 violent deaths per 1000.”

    Now for reasons of safety the interviewers sent to these areas have to be trusted by the locals and thus by the insurgents. The insurgents seems to vet people well according to reports of interrogation of kidnapped and later released individuals. The interrogators are typically former members of the disbanded intelligence services according to various forums. Further, these intelligence services have more or less remained intact.

    This leads me to think that the interviewers in the areas controlled by the insurgents, who seem to be medical doctors-thus probably trained by the old regime, must have been Sunnah and trusted by the insurgency. They may have an incentive, perhaps induced by insurgent intelligence services, to missreport the number of confirmed deaths. Given the sample size of 12000 people it seems to me that a small amount of inflation could distort the estimates significantly.

    The only thing I could find about the makeup of the interviewing teams was this:

    “The two survey teams each consisted of two female and two male interviewers, with the field manager (RL) serving as supervisor. All were medical doctors with previous survey and community medicine experience and were fluent in English and Arabic. ”

    So I guess there was one Sunnah team and Shi`a team. Surely you can’t send the same team to Sader city in Baghdad and into Ramdi or even these days Mosul.

    In short my problem is that Figure 3 looks like the election results. The estimates may well be fine. But I still feel uneasy.

  2. I’m not sure why people are so concerned about the statisical methology and possible flaws in the data collection. There’s a hugely more important issue here than “unease” about the numbers produced in an epidemiological survey of deaths in Iraq.

  3. So how many dead? How about a count from the time of the Iran-Iraq war, then add in those Saddam butchered, then the first gulf war and now the invasion and the conflagration of a free Iraq and the deaths from disease and other issues as a result of the UN sanctions. I can’t really think of a recent comparable example for the mass annihilation of a group of people since Pol Pot and Cambodia.

  4. The Lancet study puts the fatalities at between 392,979 and 942,636, this large if not enormous range reflects the potential for error and bias in the study.

    No degree of error was given for the bias of the interviewers selection process, this has the potential to further increase the range substantially.

    Although interviewers used a robust process for identifying clusters, the potential exists for interviewers to be drawn to especially affected houses through conscious or unconscious processes. Although evidence of this bias does not exist, its potential cannot be dismissed

  5. This is pathetic, rog. Take the lower bound of the confidence interval, and make any plausible allowance for interviewer bias and so on. The results are still catastrophically awful. Why don’t you admit that the war you supported has caused hundreds of thousands of deaths, then start thinking about what can be salvaged from the situation.

    Unfortunately this comment from you is par for the course. On every topic you comment on, you demonstrate a complete unwillingness to face facts, and an apparent belief that snark and marginal point-scoring is a sufficient substitute for evidence. It’s exactly the same with global warming, WMDs and so on.

    Mike, you’re right about the awful history of Iraq since Saddam came to power, and to some extent before that.

  6. You are acting the bully John, the facts have yet to be properly determined and the Lancet study works only on estimates.

  7. rog,
    The methodology is the standard one used for studies of deaths in war zones. It produced the figure of 3.8 m dead in the DR Congo. It has been used in Bosnia and Kosovo and in Darfur. In each case it suffers the same difficulties in accuracy of reporting. In each case it produces the best possible estimate under the circumstances. The western media had no problem with the Congo estimate – as far as I can see 3.8 m was just produced as fact, without even mentioning the confidence interval.

    It seems more than likely that the exact numbers will never be “properly determined” because whoever does the counting, there will always be bias. Which is true of all accounts of war-related deaths everywhere. Put plainly, you cannot hope for an accounting that shows the tiny numbers you clearly want to see. So just swallow it and do as JQ says: accept that whatever the correct figure, it is horrendous.

  8. rog – “the facts have yet to be properly determined and the Lancet study works only on estimates.”

    As are television ratings and market surveys that billions are staked on. In TV ratings certain houses are sampled and this is used to estimate to total amount of people watching a certain TV show. The Lancet study used standard statistical techniques that are in daily use all the time to estimate populations based on small random samples.

    The wide confidence interval is a measure of how difficult it is to get reliable data in Iraq. We will never know the amount of people killed in the Iraq war however any figure over 1 is bad enough. Do you think that you can shock and awe a heavily populated urban population and get only 30 000 casualties? The official figures are no better, probably worse, than the statistical studies because NO effort was made by the US authorities to count civilian deaths.

  9. And even with the figure of 30000 fatalities (most of them Iraqi and near neighbours), you still need to take into account advances in medical treatment. I read recently (in an article on, I think) that as a result of better medical treatement, the rate of combat injuries to deaths in this war is 8:1 whereas in the Vietnam war it was 3:1.

  10. What is awful about the figures is that it is an enormous proportion of the Iraqi population. I put it in the context of Australia’s reaction to events such as the Port Arthur massacre, the Bali bombing incidents and similar and cannot imagine the impact it must have on the local population.

    What is even worse is the fact that we hear daily about car bombs etc but never about the impact of air strikes. It seems that we are kept unaware of the real situation and even then the problems seem immense. Rog is worried about bullying – but not by those who are actually delivering serious physical damage to the Iraqis.

    There was a great deal of early triumphalism in both Afghanistan and Iraq – by people who no doubt support Howard’s version of the history wars. The danger with a lack of knowledge of histroy – or a one sided version is that it means that bad decisions are taken and then repeated.

    Are there any historians able to draw a parallel to other previous conflicts in the Middle East?

  11. P.S. the point of the article was that the number of permanently maimed US solders was horrendous, and was the figure that should have been talked about.

  12. There was one other fact about recent conflicts that I’m not sure has received much attention. Michael Moore had a link on his site for some time, but I didn’t bother checking it out until recently.

    Everyone knows that the US has been using Depleted Uranium in its anti-tank missiles since at least the first Iraq conflict, and they know that it has a half life of 4.5 billion years, but I was shocked to learn that they also us it as coating on the outside of their tanks (because it is more dense than lead). Apparently many military personnel, who have served in Iraq have noticed extreme health side effects which they attribute to working in close contact with DU.

    This may come back in future years and bite the military in the form of massive law suites (if the link is can be scientifically verified).

  13. “Are there any historians able to draw a parallel to other previous conflicts in the Middle East?”

    The only recent parallel would be the 8-year Algerian war of independence 1954-61, variously estimated according to Wikipedia at between 300,000 and 1 million dead. There are other parallels also, including the enthusiastic participation by irregular forces, variously linked to ‘official’ combatants, in the general slaughter.

    French military casualties in that conflict were 18,000 dead and 65,000 wounded. The Iraq conflict is notable thus far it would seem for an even more barbarous ratio of military to civilian casualties and a more rapid rate of conversion of the living into corpses.

    Another feature of the Algerian war was the subversion of French democracy by pro-war and what can only be described as crypto-fascist elements in the military, business, politics and the bureacracy. This may be another parallel worthy of comment.

    A third area of interesting parallel was the prolongation of the war in order to forestall what the war’s apologists thought would be a bloodbath attendant upon French withdrawal. There was no such bloodbath, although a million Pieds-Noirs and their sympathisers- afflicted perhaps by guilty consciences – fled to France in expectation of it.

  14. The death figure looks huge – most of it is due to sectarian violence with Muslims killing Muslims. John assumes that the absence of Americans in Iraq will reduce the death rate.

    Maybe, but given the dominant role of sectarian violence how can anyone be sure. Could there be all out civil war across the country with millions rather than hundreds of thousands killed?

    That’s not an argument for a continued prescence but it does at least suggest a case for caution.

  15. “John assumes that the absence of Americans in Iraq will reduce the death rate.”

    I don’t assume it, Harry. Like you, I see that there are huge risks whatever is done. On balance my view is that, since withdrawal is inevitable in the end, and since the Occupation has made things dramatically worse, an early withdrawal is probably better than a late one. But, as you say, how can anyone be sure?

  16. Just for once I would like an acknowledgement form the likes of rog and observa and the rest of the wingnuttery, that the most the shocking and racist thing about the Iraq ‘body counts war’, is that the COW explicitly rejected any process or program for actually counting the Iraqi dead. That says it all really. As that realist White House spokesperson said ‘We don’t do body counts’. How typical now of the hard right totalitarian racists, that having decided they wouldn’t bother to count how many they killed, they now try and smear anyone who tries to do the awful but morally necessary task of counting how many people were killed as a result of this ‘war of choice’. Oh well, tough for the Iraqis I suppose, but think what the body count would have been if we hadn’t invaded. soon we will be reading of estimates prepared by well known statisticians and mortality experts like Mark Steyn and Miranda Devine that the deaths would have been even higher if we hadn’t invaded, so really we have done every last damned one of them a favour.
    That would be ‘moral clarity’ I suppose.

  17. In a further example of official immorality,comes the statement by a Minister in B-liar’s regime,David Blunket,,,another one of the awful”new ” Labour leaders…that he urged a bombing raid on Al-Jazerra’s studios in Qatar during the first phase of the Iraq War.
    This was intended to silence the main media outlet in the Arab world,and kill Arab journalists,,,but that was no worry for a senior “new” Labourite His suggestion was not followed…luckily because it would only have widened the gulf between the West and the Arab. world ..and the moronic Bush has the check to ask..”,why do they hate us.”….to which I guess the sensible reply would be ..”why not?”
    Of course if some Arab group responded with an attack on the BBC that would be terrorism.!!

  18. harry clarke,
    “most of it is due to sectarian violence with Muslims killing Muslims”

    31% of the deaths were attributed to the coalition forces. 45% were attributed to ‘unknown’ and 24% to ‘other’. It does not follow that the latter were due to ‘sectarian violence’ since there are also Iraqi government forces and an anti-occupation resistance attacking the them. Indeed given the large number of reported incidents of attacks on police and other government forces, it is reasonable to suppose that a large proportion of the ‘other’ and ‘unknown’ deaths were a result of the occupation, even if not directly attributable to the occupying forces.

  19. Hal9000, you should consider more than just the Pieds Noirs fleeing Algeria. There were also the Harkis (pro-French natives basically, though it’s a bit more complicated than that).

    The thing is, you can’t say that “there wasn’t any massacre” as a disproof of the well founded fears, any more than you can about Palestinians who fled the founding of Israel. The flight itself changed the outcome, and furthermore caused any actual killings to cease to be obviously connected to prior events. Algerian revenge killings did occur, only now to a much more diffuse group and more spread out over time since the targets weren’t so identifiable.

  20. Whatever the current body count is, I think that the following statement from the site says it all.

    It is also difficult to say exactly what counts as a “Vietnam war casualty”; people are still being killed today by unexploded ordinance, particularly cluster bomblets. Environmental effects from chemical agents and the colossal social problems caused by a devastated country with so many dead surely caused many more lives to be shortened.

    War has a devastating cost to the participants that may last for decades. Any leader that nonchalantly launches a war, and tries to think of any excuse to do so (he tried to kill my daddy comes to mind), should be hounded by the media.

    Given that millions of people were prepared to march in the street (unfortunately I wasn’t one of them), our leaders should have been wise enoughs to realise that this was only going to end one way.

    Also, given that the “Commander in Chief (or Thief as some like to say)” didn’t even realise that Iraq was composed of different sectarian elements (maybe he should have asked his National Security Adviser at the time, who is apparently is an expert in Middle East diplomacy), it begs the question, how could he have been elected President a second time? But I think we all know the answer to that one, given my previous statements.

  21. P.S. And if he didn’t realise that sectarian violence might arise as a result of the power vacumm, doesn’t it suggest that he wasn’t really interested in democracy in the first place. Maybe he should have gone in with a plan to make three separate states, with a resource sharing arrangement. That would have made sense.

    When history examines the facts of this war, it will be judges as a major stuff up from the get-go. There is no doubt about that in my mind.

  22. Silly comment about death rates deleted. Those interested can read the identical comment, and crushing refutations, over at Deltoid, under the name of one of Tim’s socks. Tim, I showed more patience than I should have, but anything more from you will be deleted.

  23. “The death figure looks huge – most of it is due to sectarian violence with Muslims killing Muslims. ”

    I agree.

    “John assumes that the absence of Americans in Iraq will reduce the death rate. ”

    a withdrawal now could lead to another Rwanda

  24. Sukrit,
    Even discounting the fact that many people harbour reservations about Professor Rummel’s methodology and his obvious bias, this is not a game of comparing numbers. As my pappy used to say, two wrongs, in no way whatsoever on this god’s green earth will ever, either in my lifetime or yours, make a right.

    Are you suggesting that the Iraqi people should be thankful that less of them are being killed than under Saddam? Are you aware of the fact that Saddam was in power for nearly three decades while the US has only been occupying Iraq for a little over three years?

    One can only imagine the untold horrors that await the Iraqi people, despite their shiny new ‘democracy’. How long before they, like the Afghans, will start to long for the ‘good old days’.

  25. “The death figure looks huge – most of it is due to sectarian violence with Muslims killing Muslims. â€?

    Maybe so, but the Coalition accounts for around a third of all deaths, so you could reasonably say that the three main sides in the current civil war have killed about equal numbers.

    Still, at least we’re discussing the relevant topic of how to prevent the worst possible outcomes.

  26. There was in fact a bloodbath after the French left Algeria; the Algerian soldiers the French left behind were massacred.
    “Scores are being settled today whose origins lie in conflicts resulting from Algerian independence in 1962 such as the massacre of 60,000-100,000 harkis that took place only months after independence. The harkis were Algerians who joined armed French militias of the same type that the present Algerian government has set up in villages. After independence, the harkis were not allowed into France, and ended up prisoners in their own country. And they were killed.”
    And the point of that, as I see it, is that even with that outcome, and even with a fairly thoroughly fucked-up Algeria over most of the time since, nobody today looking back on the Algerian war would say that the way to produce a better outcome would have been for the French to have stayed the course till, say, now. There would probably have been ways to get things to come out more or less right if the French had started running down their involvement in 1944 and done everything right after that; by 1962 there were no solutions, only consequences.
    We’ve got to that point in Iraq rather more quickly.

  27. The Algerian War was one of independence from the colonial power, it has been argued that the defeat of France promoted the newer movements like the PLO.

    Iraq seems to be Iraqi on Iraqi, whilst the COW admit that their presence can exacerbate the situation the primary struggle appears to be internal.

  28. Chris asks, “Are you suggesting that the Iraqi people should be thankful that less of them are being killed than under Saddam?”

    Omar of ITM is very upset about this survey.

    “When I read the report I can only feel apathy and inhumanity from those who did the count towards the victims and towards our suffering as a whole. I can tell they were so pleased when the equations their twisted minds designed led to those numbers and nothing can convince me that they did their so called research out of compassion or care.

    To me their motives are clear, all they want is to prove that our struggle for freedom was the wrong thing to do. And they shamelessly use lies to do this…when they did not find the death they wanted to see on the ground, they faked it on paper! They disgust me…”

    I think Omar does believe that it is better than still being victims of Saddam. He lives in Baghdad and has lost family to sectarian murders.

  29. Statistical analysis is beyond me but there are aspects of this survey that I do have the experience to consider. A statistician makes the point that the survey group is claiming that teams could typically complete a survey of 40 households in one day, and that would not be possible. I agree, working for the full 24 hours still only allows 36 minutes to run through intro, consent, (even with their claim that they surveyed houses adjacent to each other so word would spread) questionnaire, sight documentation, and get to the next household. And just how many Iraqis would open the door to strangers in the middle of the night.

    He also makes the point that the teams went to 1849 households in urban areas of Iraq and encountered only 16 empty residences and only 15 refusals, that they got a response rate of 98.3%. Iraqis must have a very different attitude to being surveyed to that of Australians. There was no follow up of any sort.

    Maybe badly detailed, but as the report does make these claims it is hard not to question the survey. Along with the statistician who questioned their figures, I too would be over the moon at a 98.3% response rate. And even with them lined up and waiting their turn, 40 a day are not possible.

  30. Hi Harry,

    That’s right, “Muslims killing Muslims” and they blame the Christians (?)

    An interesting world view.

    A historical narrative does it for me. In short, the Bush administration invaded iraq for no good reason, they where negligent and behaved criminally as an occupying power, this resulted in a ferocious partisan war, they lost control of the occupation, many people died in the chaos.

    As I said a few months ago, we should sack anyone associated in any way with the decision to go to war (end their careers). This includes the bunch of lunatic “intellectuals” that came up with the neoTrotskyist romanticism of endless war.

  31. When it comes to dealing death from the skies, I say it’s now it’s now time for the US to bite the bullet and pass a little gas. Hey, it worked for Saddam and sure tickled Winnie’s fancy.

  32. “A statistician makes the point that the survey group is claiming that teams could typically complete a survey of 40 households in one day, and that would not be possible.”

    Ros, if I were to tell you that the Australian cricket team is able to occupy 9 different fielding positions, wicket keep and bowl all at the same time – would this make it seem a little more possible?

  33. Iraq Body Count have responded to the Lancet survey, in part they reference the UN study which used a larger cluster of 21,668 households in all provinces and which found that war related deaths from invasion to mid 2004 as “24,000 deaths, with a 95 percent confidence interval from 18,000 to 29,000 deaths”

  34. Bad analogy I think Anthony. “From this start household the team proceeded to the adjacent residence until 40 households were surveyed……The interview team were given the responsibility and authority to change to an alternate location�

    No suggestion that the team split into individuals to cover the field. And it is counterintuitive to assume that the female members of the 4 person teams (2 males, 2 females) approached households alone.

  35. Who cares?

    When the same methods were used to estimate deaths in the Congo, no one much bothered to debate how much work a team of surveyors could do in a day.

    Most of this nit-picking is about avoiding the issue.

  36. Well, something is seriously wrong with the Lancet’s figures. if circa 760 Iraqi’s are dying every day, that implies circa three times that number wounded.

    Well, the media (ABC news at 1900) reported today as a very bloody day with about 150 civilians killed in terrorist attacks.

    How come they missed the other 600? (and the circa 2200 wounded) And if it was a very bloody day today, should not more than the daily average have died?

    None of this adds up – literally.


  37. Chris B, some Harkis did get into France despite the policy. These mainly remain in camps to this day – thereby undercutting a standard Israeli blame the victim technique, falsely asserting that only the Palestinians still live in camps and that this must reflect a uniquely Arab unwillingness to mop up a mess created by Zionists (in 1948-9) and Israelis (1967 onward). The fact of the matter is, once dislocated nobody can reasonably expect resettlement; the Palestinian predicament was not artificially maintained by others later.

  38. MarkL – the blunt fact is that Iraq is too unsafe for any western reporter to venture outside US bases now, except when embedded with US military patrols. They can’t know.

    Those are *reported* dead and wounded. The Iraqi Health Ministry itself says that it cannot properly record all the bodies it knows of, and in he most violent parts of the country the Iraqi government’s writ just does not run.

    Just like believing in the WMDs by March 2003, people who still think Iraq is not in a state of genuine civil war can only believe that by simply not paying attention (either they’re not interested and so are forming opinions by vague impressions of past press coverage, or they’ve got their hands over their ears desperately crying “Na, na, na I can’t hear you”).

    And in a genuine civil war you are all too likely to encounter figures like 600k deaths. Put that in perspective – it equates to “only” 650 extra deaths daily since the invasion.

  39. DD, we’ve had this discussion before. It depends just how technical you’re getting, and just which terminology you are using, whether you call this “civil war”. In fact, I recently came across an example of this technical use at Jerry Pournelle’s blog – though I don’t recall which week it was in, off hand.

  40. I have so much to say but I cannot for to many words leave my tounge tangled!I know this,I know we are all brothers in sisters in this world,not one better then the other,I weep for this world,what we all have done,or should I say not done???I know this even the smallest light can put a world of darkness out,but the human nature in us keeps trying to blow what ever light that becomes out.I am from america but am not so proud,what makes me proud is a all loveing humanity that unites,yes we are different countries but where is the lines really???I say this my arms are open my heart cries for the massecre of all humanity no matter race,religon,lands,A holy war is not holy….anything but!
    Tracy sad american

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