The Pentagon is collecting figures on local casualties in Iraq, contrary to its public claims, but the results are classified, according to one of the authors of an independent study which reported last week that the war has killed at least 100,000 Iraqis.
"Despite the claim of the head of US Central Command at the time, General Tommy Franks, that 'We don't do body counts', the US military does collect casualty figures in Iraq," said Professor Richard Garfield, an expert on the effects of conflict on civilians. "But since 1991, when Colin Powell was head of the joint chiefs of staff, the figures have been kept secret."
Mr Powell decided to keep the figures secret because of the controversy over body counts in Vietnam, but I think democracies need this information.
Prof. Richard Garfield
Professor Garfield, who lectures at Columbia University in New York and the London School of Hygiene and Public Health, believes the Pentagon's stance has confused its response to the latest study. "The military is saying: 'We don't believe it, but because we don't collect figures, we can't comment," he said.
"Mr Powell decided to keep the figures secret because of the controversy over body counts in Vietnam, but I think democracies need this information."
The first scientific study of the human cost of the Iraq war, published last week in The Lancet, showed a higher level of casualties than previous estimates. Iraqbodycount.net, a website which collects accounts of Iraqi civilian deaths reported by two separate media sources, said yesterday the toll was between 14,181 and 16,312, but admits that the spreading violence in Iraq, which has made it all but impossible for journalists to move around safely, has undermined its method. That did not prevent the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, from using its figures to cast doubt on the academic survey.
The Government would examine the results "with very great care", Mr Straw told BBC Radio 4's Today program last week. "It is an estimate based on very different methodology from standard methodology for assessing casualties, namely on the number of people reported to have been killed at the time or around the time." Previously the Government has dismissed the findings of the Iraqbodycount website.
The study by US and Iraqi researchers, led by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, surveyed 1,000 households in 33 randomly chosen areas in Iraq. It found that the risk of violent death was 58 times higher in the period since the invasion, and that most of the victims were women and children.
"Making conservative assumptions, about 100,000 excess deaths have happened ... Violence accounted for most of the excess deaths, and air strikes from coalition forces accounted for most violent deaths," said Les Roberts of the Baltimore institution. The researchers excluded Fallujah, the most violent area of Iraq, from their results, which would have made the toll higher. But the finding that air strikes caused the highest casualties casts doubt on US claims that air attacks allow pinpoint precision.
Iraq's interim government has also suppressed casualty figures. Dr Nagham Mohsen, an official at the Iraqi Health Ministry, was compiling data from hospital records last year. In December she was ordered by a superior to stop. The Health Minister denied that the order was inspired by the Coalition Provisional Authority.
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