The enormous cemetery at Najaf is a favored burial site for Shiites from all over Iraq, and provides macabre evidence for the state of affairs in that country.
Dhurgham Majed al Malik, 48, whose family has arranged burial services for generations, said that this spring, private cars and taxis with caskets lashed to their roofs arrived at a rate of 6,500 a month. Now it's 4,000 or less, he said.
Malik said that the daily tide of cars bearing coffins has been a barometer of Iraq's violence for years. The number of burials rose and fell several times during Saddam Hussein's persecution of Shiites, and it soared again during the eight years of the Iran - Iraq war in the 1980s.
Then in the 1990s, the daily average fell to 150 or less, Malik said. With the current war, the burials again reached 300 daily.
In the early days of the war, some bodies brought for burial had been victims of Saddam, found by their families in unmarked mass graves. Later, there were surges; September 2005 marked a high point after a stampede during a Shiite Muslim festival killed hundreds on a Baghdad bridge. More than 1,300 were buried in a single day, Malik said.
If the preinvasion burial rate was up to 150 a day, and estimates of the preinvasion annual death rate of about 6 per thousand are reasonably correct, then roughly 1/3 of Iraqi dead (and 2/3 of Shiite dead) were being buried there. The increase over the preinvasion rate would be a strong indicator of the level of violent deaths since then.
Malik reported an increase over preinvasion rates of 150 burials a day at their peak, presumably some months in 2006. That would have included unidentified dead from Baghdad. Unidentified dead from Baghdad could exceed three dozen a month pre-invasion, climbed to 140 a month in July of 2005, and peaked at 2000 a month during the worst periods after the Askariya mosque bombing in February 2006. Many of those unidentified dead would have been Sunni: perhaps half or more. It seems likely that Baghdad was not the only place that sent unidentified dead to Najaf. An official reported that 40,000 unidentified bodies have been buried there since the invasion, and the unidentified dead reported from Baghdad would only account for about 2/3 of that total. Some number of the remainder would have been Sunni as well.
When violence was at its peak, then, the cemetery would have received about 2,700-3,300 extra Shiite corpses in the worst months, over and above the normal preinvasion burials, and all or most dead from violence or other consequences of the conflict there. If the prewar burial pattern held, about half that number of additional Shiites killed by violence would have been buried elsewhere.
Surveys have given various estimates of the violent death rate for Sunni Arabs, ranging from about the same per household or family rate as Shiites to twice as high. The same surveys find Kurdish violent deaths per family or household ranging from 1/3 to 1/6 of the Shiite rate. Given their share of the population and assuming similar household and family demographics, deaths from Sunni Arabs and Kurds might have totaled from 1.2 to 2.5 times the number of Shiite burials in Najaf, and total violent Iraqi deaths would have equaled 2.7 to 4 times that number, or 7,000-13,000 a month.
In the spring of 2007 Malik reported 6,500 private burials a month. In addition, about 300 unidentified bodies a month were delivered by truck from Baghdad to Najaf, with a like number going to a new cemetery at Karbala, and perhaps additional unidentified dead from elsewhwere. Applying the same multiples would give a national violent death rate of 6,000-10,000 a month.
These estimates are 2.4-4.6 times the Iraq Body Count tally for civilian deaths in media reports for the same periods. This disparity is unsurprising, since media reports would miss some deaths and total deaths would include a significant number of combatants who were not civilians. There was a similar ratio of 2.7/1 between the ILCS demographic survey, which asked about total war-related deaths in Aril 2004, and the IBC civilian tally for the same period.
Applying these multiples to the IBC tally to date would suggest a total violent death toll of 200,000-300,000.
If the above seems too complicated, let me give you a simplified version that sets a crude upper limit on violent deaths in Iraq.
Pre-invasion, based on reports from cemetery workers at Najaf, it looks like about 2/3 of Iraqi Shiite dead were buried at Najaf. Conditions are more chaotic now, but the relative political and economic position of Shiites has improved, so it seems plausible that a similar or higher proportion holds.
In 2006, up to 2000 unidentified dead from Baghdad were buried at Najaf each month. Many of these would have been Sunni Arabs, so counting all post-invasion burials at Najaf as Shiite would significantly overcount the Shiite death rate. However, let us simplify and ignore this factor.
At their highest, burials at Najaf were 300 a day, 150 higher than the pre-invasion rate. The likeliest explanation for the disparity is an increase in violent deaths post-invasion.
The highest survey-based estimate of Sunni Arab deaths per household is twice the Shiite rate, and most surveys give a lower ratio. It appears that Sunni Arabs are about 75% as numerous as Shiites in Iraq. The highest survey based estimate for Kurdish deaths per household is 1/3 the Shiite rate. Iraqi Kurds seem to be about 1/3 as numerous as Shiite Arabs.
We then have the following upper bound for monthly violent deaths at their peak:
4,500 Shiites buried at Najaf.
2,250 Shiites buried elsewhere.
10,125 Sunni Arabs
750 Sunni Kurds
This is 5.8 times the highest IBC monthly total. Applying the same multiple to the average of maximum and minimum IBC totals to date gives about 460,000. Since this ignores the problem of double counting unidentified dead at Najaf, and uses the highest surveyed value for Sunni Arab deaths it is likely to be a considerable overestimate.