SEATTLE, WA - Dr. Les Roberts risked his life a few years ago to get some numbers that some people fiercely attack as inaccurate or misleading and that many, many more probably pay little or no attention to.
Roberts, a physician and prominent public health scientist at Columbia University, believes there is solid evidence that something like half a million people, mostly civilians, have been killed in the Iraq war. His statistics are about 10 times higher than the estimates put forth by the Bush administration and Pentagon.
But a much bigger problem than the numerical disparity, Roberts said, is the simple fact that so few even ask.
"I think it's important that every American understand the true magnitude of this tragedy," said Roberts. Unfortunately, he added, few in the media or in government appear to want to draw attention to the deaths that have so severely altered the life of nearly every Iraqi.
In 2004, Roberts and colleagues sneaked into Iraq with dyed beards and dressed in robes to conduct a series of mortality "cluster point" surveys in various communities while the war raged on. His team initially estimated the civilian death toll as at least 100,000 (two to three times the official estimate) but later analysis caused him to raise the estimate to be 95 percent certain to be in the range of 400,000 to 950,000 - or a mean of about 650,000 deaths. The findings were reported in the British medical journal the Lancet in 2006.
"To help people understand this, given the population of Iraq, this would be like New York City having two 9/11 attacks every week over a period of three years," Roberts said. Things have gotten less violent in Iraq, he said, but nobody should be lulled into thinking that things are good.
Another report, issued in January, estimated that 151,000 Iraqis died from violence between March 2003 and June 2006. The estimate was based on projections by the Iraqi government and the World Health Organization.
"Gen. (David) Petraeus testified earlier this year about how few deaths we're seeing in Iraq, but his numbers suggested that life in Baltimore was more violent than in Iraq," he said. He said he wrote e-mails before the hearing to ask members of Congress to challenge the statistics, but nobody spoke up. No reporters he contacted challenged Petraeus' statistics either, he added with evident frustration.
"Everybody wants to believe things are getting better because Republicans want to declare victory and Democrats want an excuse to get out," Roberts said. Meanwhile, he said, the media continue to ignore the issue.
"My professional life and purpose is based on the belief that valid data, most of the time, lead toward truth and that truth can lead toward justice," Roberts said.