Sunday, April 01, 2007

How Bad Is It in Iraq?

This is not an easy question to answer. There’s good reason to think the official statistics don’t capture the full death toll: a country that’s gone through invasion, a radical regime change, insurgency and deadly sectarian conflict may have other priorities than rigorously counting all violent deaths and forwarding the information to the central government. Totaling casualties reported in the English-language media can only capture a lower bound: not all casualties are going to be captured in this way.

Polling samples have their own problems. When the misery is unevenly distributed, oversampling the worst or the best regions can badly distort the results. Eliminating this problem requires reasonably accurate regional population estimates. With hundreds of thousands of Iraqis either fleeing abroad or displaced within Iraq and a government struggling to perform its most basic functions, how accurate are such estimates likely to be?

With those caveats, two recent polls give us a clearer picture of conditions in Iraq: one carried out for ABC News, USA Today, the BBC and ARD German TV by D3 Systems, the other by ORB. Both sampled a large number of locations throughout Iraq.

In the ABC poll, 17% reported that a family member living in their household had been physically harmed by the “violence that is occurring in the country at this time”. The ILCS survey indicated an average Iraqi household size of 6.6, so this implies a minimum average casualty rate of 2.6%. Iraq Body Count compiles English–language media reports of violence in Iraq, and says that 37% of reported civilian casualties to date are fatalities.

Media reports are probably more likely to underreport injuries than fatalities. On the other hand, some families may suffer more than one casualty. If casualties were distributed purely randomly this wouldn’t affect the overall rate much, but they aren’t. If one family member is targeted or living in a risky area, there is an increased chance that others are at risk as well. If the two unknowns roughly cancel each other out, that would imply violent deaths that were about 1% of the population: far lower than Burnham et al, but still a terrible human tragedy.

Baghdad is more deadly than the country as a whole: D3 said 77% reported they had had a friend or family member harmed in Baghdad, compared to 52% overall and 29% in Kurdistan. ORB reported that 51% of those surveyed in Baghdad had had a relative, friend or colleague murdered, compared to 38% in Iraq overall

42% told D3 they thought the country was in a civil war. Given a more nuanced range of options in the ORB study, 27% said the country was in a state of civil war, 22% that the country was close to civil war but not there yet.

D3 reported 42% thought they were better off now than before the war, 36% worse. In the ORB survey, 49% thought they were better off now, 26% that they were better off under the previous regime.

D3 said 48% thought the invasion was absolutely or somewhat right, 52% absolutely or somewhat wrong.

They overwhelmingly wanted the US to leave, but only 35% wanted the US to leave immediately


Retired Tourneyer said...

Fixating on such numbers seems pointless. Same for the earlier debate over the body counts - it was only valuable because it got some more people thinking about death; apparently there was consternation at the discovery that a lot of people die in wars.

Instead of talking about impeaching/imprisoning the men who lied to get us into this war, and replacing all the idiots in Congress who allowed themselves to be swindled by the malfeasors, we are nitpicking over statistics.

Will McLean said...


I don't think the number of dead is unimportant. Replacing a murderous dictatorship in Iraq with the current flawed democratic government is worth some number of lives: more than one and less than a billion.

Unless you feel that the value of the change is infinitely high or infinitely low, the price in lives paid (mostly) by the people of Iraq matters.