The Reality of Iraq

by Claude Garrod and Judy Reynolds

There are several questions that must be answered to understand the cost to Iraqis, in terms of personal tragedies, of our invasion and occupation of their country.

Our first question is: How many Iraqis have been killed by the violence in their country since March 2003? What we want is the number of excess deaths, defined as the total number of deaths minus the number that would have died if the prewar death rate had continued. Getting that number is quite difficult because one cannot obtain it from official records. Such records don't exist. Iraq has been in almost total chaos since the invasion and thus many deaths go completely unrecorded except by the victim's family. Also, the Iraqi Health Ministry has a reputation for suppressing such data and cooking the books. To obtain any useful information one must carry out a professional statistical survey.

The study we will use was directed in 2006 by Les Roberts, an epidemiologist who is now a professor at Columbia University School of Public Health, and was at Johns Hopkins University at the time of the study. Previous to the Iraq study, Roberts did similar studies for the UN of the casualty rates in Rwanda and the Republic of Congo during their civil wars. The study used face-to-face interviews of a large, carefully constructed, sample of Iraqi households. What was found was that the number of excess deaths that could be attributed to the war and occupation was about 655,000 as of July of 2006. If this result is extrapolated to the present date, taking into account the lower death rate of the last year, one arrives at a figure of about one million deaths due to the war. Gunfire and explosions were the most common cause of death, but excess deaths also includes those from normal causes but due to the collapse of the Iraqi medical system.

Next is the question of the number of serious injuries, such as loss of limbs, concussions, or other bodily injuries requiring hospitalization; injuries that can be treated at home are entirely unrecorded. A group called Iraq Body Count (IBC) has looked into this question and arrived at a ratio of injuries to deaths of about 4 to 1. For American troops in Iraq the ratio is about 8 to 1, but that's due to the much better emergency medical service they receive which suppresses the number of deaths by converting would-be deaths to very serious injuries. In previous wars, such as the Vietnam War, the ratio was much lower. Although IBC records only those deaths and injuries that are reported by the media and therefore misses the large number of unrecorded events, their results for the ratio of injuries to deaths is more reliable then the absolute number of either. Thus we'll estimate the number of serious injuries of Iraqis as about 4 million. For more details on both these studies, check (

The other catastrophe suffered by the Iraqis is the large number of families that have been driven from their homes, either by the ethnic cleansing of previously mixed Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods or by American military campaigns, such as that which pretty much demolished Fallujah. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, since the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, an estimated 4.7 million have been displaced both within and outside Iraq and for many the situation is desperate. These families have had no income since being forced to flee their homes. Many were middle-class families that are now utterly destitute. In Syria and Jordan large numbers of normally socially conservative women have been forced into prostitution in order to keep their families off the street.

The Iraqi population consists of about 5 million Kurds, concentrated in the north, and about 23 million Arabs, who dominate the rest of the country. The American invasion has been a boon to the Kurds. Their three provinces are effectively self-governing, although still legally part of Iraq, and are pretty much free of serious violence. Thus, the disasters that we've related have been entirely concentrated in Arab Iraq.

The total number of dead, seriously injured, and displaced Iraqis is about 9,500,000. Numbers like that don't really mean much to most people. Some writers have tried to communicate the Iraqi disaster by scaling up the numbers to the size of the US population, but that makes them even larger and thus more meaningless. However, we all have an intuitive feeling for the size of our town, so suppose we just scale the number of dead, wounded, and displaced to the size of Davis. That is, we take the nine and a half million, divide it by the number of Arab Iraqis, and multiply by the population of Davis (about 62,000). We then discover that if Davis had the misfortune to be located on the Euphrates we would have 25,600 people, either dead, wounded, or driven out of their homes. This is three times the total enrollment of all the Davis public schools.

It's clear that Iraq has been devastated. It's the height of callousness for people such as John McCain to smile and chatter about success in Iraq and to blithely ignore the horror we have caused in the country. If last year a member of your family was killed or maimed, your daughter was driven into prostitution or you had to flee your home, then things are not "looking up" this year -- or ever.