By Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 29, 2004; Page A16
One of the first attempts to independently estimate the loss of civilian life from the Iraqi war has concluded that at least 100,000 Iraqi civilians may have died because of the U.S. invasion.
The analysis, an extrapolation based on a relatively small number of documented deaths, indicated that many of the excess deaths have occurred due to aerial attacks by coalition forces, with women and children being frequent victims, wrote the international team of public health researchers making the calculations.
Pentagon officials say they do not keep tallies of civilian casualties, and a spokesman said yesterday there is no way to validate estimates by others. The spokesman said that the past 18 months of fighting in Iraq have been "prosecuted in the most precise fashion of any conflict in the history of modern warfare," and that "the loss of any innocent lives is a tragedy, something that Iraqi security forces and the multinational force painstakingly work to avoid."
Previous independent estimates of civilian deaths in Iraq were far lower, never exceeding 16,000. Other experts immediately challenged the new estimate, saying the small number of documented deaths upon which it was based make the conclusions suspect.
"The methods that they used are certainly prone to inflation due to overcounting," said Marc E. Garlasco, senior military analyst for Human Rights Watch, which investigated the number of civilian deaths that occurred during the invasion. "These numbers seem to be inflated."
The estimate is based on a September door-to-door survey of 988 Iraqi households -- containing 7,868 people in 33 neighborhoods -- selected to provide a representative sampling. Two survey teams gathered detailed information about the date, cause and circumstances of any deaths in the 14.6 months before the invasion and the 17.8 months after it, documenting the fatalities with death certificates in most cases.
The project was designed by Les Roberts and Gilbert M. Burnham of the Center for International Emergency, Disaster and Refugee Studies at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore; Richard Garfield of Columbia University in New York; and Riyadh Lafta and Jamal Kudhairi of Baghdad's Al-Mustansiriya University College of Medicine.
Based on the number of Iraqi fatalities recorded by the survey teams, the researchers calculated that the death rate since the invasion had increased from 5 percent annually to 7.9 percent. That works out to an excess of about 100,000 deaths since the war, the researchers reported in a paper released early by the Lancet, a British medical journal.
The researchers called their estimate conservative because they excluded deaths in Fallujah, a city west of Baghdad that has been the scene of particularly intense fighting and has accounted for a disproportionately large number of deaths in the survey.
"We are quite confident that there's been somewhere in the neighborhood of 100,000 deaths, but it could be much higher," Roberts said.
When the researchers examined the causes of the 73 violent deaths collected in the study, 84 percent were due to the actions of coalition forces, although the researchers stressed that none was the result of what would have been considered misconduct. Ninety-five percent were due to airstrikes by helicopter gunships, rockets or other types of aerial weaponry.
Forty-six percent of the violent deaths involving coalition forces were men ages 15 to 60, but 46 percent were children younger than 15, and 7 percent were women, the researchers reported.
The researchers and the Lancet editors acknowledged that the study has clear limitations, including a relatively small sample of violent deaths that were examined directly and the researchers' reliance on individual memories for some information. But the researchers said the findings represent the most reliable estimate to date.
The paper was "extensively peer-reviewed, revised, edited" and rushed into print "because of its importance to the evolving security situation in Iraq, Richard Horton, the journal's editor, wrote in an accompanying editorial.
But Garlasco of Human Rights Watch said it is extremely difficult to estimate civilian casualties, especially based on relatively small numbers. "I certainly think that 100,000 is a reach," Garlasco said.
In addition, his group's investigation indicated that the ground war, not the air war, caused more of the deaths that have occurred.
Staff writer Josh White and research editor Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.