Wednesday, October 11, 2006

No surprise here: The Maliki government in Iraq is in the tank for the GOP in the run-up to the November elections:

In the last week of September, the government barred the central morgue in Baghdad and the Health Ministry -- the two main sources of information for civilian deaths -- from releasing figures to the news media. Now, only the government is allowed to release figures. It has not provided statistics for September, though a spokesman said Tuesday that it would.

That's from this New York Times story by Sabrina Tavernise and Donald McNeil, which you may already know about:

A team of American and Iraqi public health researchers has estimated that 600,000 civilians have died in violence across Iraq since the 2003 American invasion, the highest estimate ever for the toll of the war here.

The figure breaks down to about 15,000 violent deaths a month, a number that is quadruple the one for July given by Iraqi government hospitals and the morgue in Baghdad and published last month in a United Nations report in Iraq....

It is the second study by researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health....

The mortality rate before the American invasion was about 5.5 people per 1,000 per year, the study found. That rate rose to 19.8 deaths per 1,000 people in the year ending in June....

Tavernise and McNeil spend most of the article conveying skepticism about the report -- but they leave a couple of facts out:

* T&M: ...the [U.S.] military has not released figures of its own, giving only percentage comparisons. For example, it cited a 46 percent drop in the murder rate in Baghdad in August from July as evidence of the success of its recent sweeps.

Tavernise and McNeil fail to note that this apparent sudden drop came after U.S. officials decided to exclude victims of car bombs and mortar attacks from their count.

* T&M: Iraqi authorities say morgue counts are more accurate than is generally thought. Iraqis prefer to bury their dead immediately, and hurry bodies of loved ones to plots near mosques or, in the case of Shiites, in sacred burial sites. Even so, they have strong incentives to register the death with a central morgue or hospital in order to obtain a death certificate, required at highway checkpoints, by cemetery workers, and for government pensions. Death certificates are counted in the statistics kept by morgues around the country.

But story after story -- including at least one in the Times itself -- has pointed out that Iraqi Sunnis are afraid to go to hospitals and morgues to look for missing relatives because many hospitals and morgues are controlled by Sunni militias. Under those circumstances, would Sunnis who actually have possession of the bodies of relatives who've died violent deaths risk death themselves, just to obtain death certificates? And why should we trust morgue body counts when it's clear (see above) that the Shiite-dominated government is willing to politicize them? (See also "Official Says Shiite Party Suppressed Body Count," from the March 9 Washington Post.)

By the way, if you have time, give a listen to a story about the first Johns Hopkins survey that appeared last fall on This American Life. You come away from the story believing that the Americans and Iraqis who conducted the survey were remarkably careful and rigorous, determined to stick to a very mainstream method for measuring casualties, even if it meant risking their lives. And the method is considered quite mainstream, as the story points out -- or it was until the inconvenient results of the original study were made public. (Earlier studies in other settings using the same method had been widely accepted.)


MORE: The original study got a bum rap. Barbara at the Mahablog explains why, in detail.

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