Q&A: Les Roberts
by Matthew Chavez
Daily Lobo columnist
On Jan. 9, the World Health Organization and the Iraqi government released a study that estimates about 150,000 Iraqis died from violence between the beginning of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and June 2006.
Controversy over the issue first arose after a 2004 Johns Hopkins University study found 100,000 Iraqis died from causes related to the occupation of Iraq in that timeframe. A 2006 update placed the death toll at around half a million Iraqis, a figure President Bush dismissed as "not credible." I spoke to the lead researcher of the Hopkins study, Les Roberts, associate professor at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, about the study.
Daily Lobo: Analysts at the Web site IraqBodyCount.org have been critical of your 2006 study, suggesting your findings entail "extreme and improbable implications," as every day since the invasion, thousands of civilian fatalities have gone unreported.
Les Roberts: First of all, back in 2002, the Iraqi government only recorded one-third of all deaths. So, that was when the system was fully functional. Thought No. 2: There has to be among 26 million people (the approximate population of Iraq) something to the order of 150,000 deaths per year from natural causes. If you look at the official hospital statistics and the morgue statistics, the Iraqi government is not capturing 10 percent of those. Finally, in times of war, the majority of deaths go unreported. In Bosnia, probably 20 percent were recorded. But that's the highest we can find.
DL: According to IBC, your study also implies that U.S.-led forces killed more civilians in 2006 than during such high-fatality operations as the 2003 invasion and the assaults on Falluja.
LR: Our data suggests that the (March 2003) shock-and-awe campaign was very careful, that a lot of the targets were genuine military targets. So, I think it is correct that in 2006, probably in almost any month, there were more civilians dying than during shock-and-awe. As far as the Falluja assault, our one cluster (population sample) in 2004 suggested that something to the order of one-quarter of the population had died.
DL: Your critics also claim that your methodology is better suited to the study of disease epidemics, not conflict mortalities.
LR: This is the standard. The U.S. government is funding something called the SMART Initiative, and it's designed to teach humanitarian aid workers how to do cluster-mortality surveys like we're doing. When the U.S. government went to Kosovo to estimate how many people had died, this is how they did it. When the U.S. government went to Afghanistan in 2003 to estimate the death rate, this is how they did it. This is a crude method, but it's probably the standard of the industry.
DL: What accounts for the disparity between your studies and the WHO-Iraqi government study?
LR: There's far less discrepancy than has been suggested in the press. We found, for the three years after the invasion, the death rates went up 2.4-fold. They found the death rate went up 2.0-fold. When they looked in their data, initially they had a death rate before the invasion that seemed to them implausibly low. Remember, this was produced by the Iraqi government, but the WHO helped analyze the data. The WHO scientists very honestly described the three problems they have with underreporting. They said, first of all, compared with other places in the region, it seems that half the death is not being reported to us. They said this for two reasons: because the death rate they found was implausibly low for the period before the invasion, and because they didn't go to Anbar Province and much of Baghdad - the most dangerous parts of the country. So, they adjusted (for this), and it doubled what they found. When they adjusted, they had a death-rate similar to ours. Therefore, the two studies are in rough agreement as to how many people died from the invasion. We're saying 650,000 in the first three years - they're saying about 400,000. Also, their report only looks at violent deaths, which they found to be only 151,000, and which they said only accounted for one out of six deaths after the invasion. Our study said that of the dramatic increase of mortality, virtually all of it was from violence - 600,000 in that same window of three years. So, the two studies are not differing on how many died - they're differing on how many died of violence. They only went on to produce the number of violent deaths, not the number of excess deaths.
DL: Can you define "excess deaths?"
LR: Excess deaths are deaths above the baseline rate before the invasion occurred. In World War II, when we hear a death toll, it's not just the deaths from bullets and bombs, but also from starvation, medical dysfunction and all those things that tend to go with war.
DL: Final thoughts?
LR: Bush said in December 2005 he thought more or less 30,000 died. Now, the Iraqi government is saying that was a gross underestimate. In terms of the gulf of perceptions between the Middle East and us, this is good. In a poll by the University of Maryland, the average American thought about three-times as many Iraqis have died as have American soldiers. The perception would be nothing like that in Jordan, in Turkey or many other countries in the region. This number coming out of the Iraqi government being so much closer to what's reported in the Middle Eastern press, for example, is helping to diminish the divide in perception of what's gone on and, most importantly, how contrite the executors of this war should be.
Matthew Chavez is a political science major with a focus on international relations and a minor in Middle Eastern studies.