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.