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Is the U.S. Responsible for the Death of Nearly a Million Iraqis?
This week and next the Senate is considering amendments to the FY 2008 authorization for the Pentagon, an authorization that includes more money for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of the proposed amendments would try to force the Bush Administration to end the Iraq war. A few more Senate Republicans have rhetorically broken ranks with the Administration, and the question of the hour is whether they will put their votes where their mouths are and vote for a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops or other measures that would force the Administration to move towards ending the war.
This week, the Congressional Research Service put the financial cost of the war in Iraq at $10 billion a month. The New York Times editorialized that "It is time for the United States to leave Iraq, without any more delay than the Pentagon needs to organize an orderly exit."
A key question is missing from this debate. How many Iraqis have died as a result of the U.S. invasion? The New York Times editorial is silent on this matter.
In a scientific study published last fall in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet, researchers from Johns Hopkins estimated that 650,000 Iraqis had died because of our government's invasion of their country. The survey that produced that estimate was completed in July, 2006. That was a year ago.
Unfortunately, despite the calls of the Lancet authors for other studies, there has been no systematic effort to update these results.
Just Foreign Policy has attempted to update the Lancet estimate in the best way we know. We have extrapolated from the Lancet estimate, using the trend provided by the tally of Iraqi deaths reported in Western media compiled by Iraq Body Count. Our current estimate is that 974,000 Iraqis have died as a result of the U.S. invasion. The web counter and fuller explanation are here.
The Iraqi death toll resulting from the U.S. invasion is a key fact. We cannot make intelligent and moral choices about U.S. foreign policy while ignoring such a key fact. It has implications for our choices in Iraq, for our choices in dealing with Iran, for our choices about the size of the U.S. military (for why do our leaders want to expand the U.S. military, except to have the capacity to invade other countries?)
The exact toll will never be known. But this is no reason not to attempt to know what the best estimate is. We also don't know many other key facts with certainty. We don't know how many people live in the U.S. The census department creates an estimate, and this estimate is the basis of policy.
The Johns Hopkins researchers used the methods accepted all over the world to estimate deaths in the wake of war and natural disasters. The United Nations, for example, uses them to plan famine relief. Even the Bush administration relies on them when it accuses Sudan of genocide in Darfur. At present, this represents the best information we have.
As Congress considers legislative efforts to end the war, best estimates of the Iraqi death toll must be part of the debate. Robert Naiman is Senior Policy Analyst and National Coordinator at Just Foreign Policy.