The Untold Story: Over One Million Civilian Deaths in Iraq

Project Censored calls it "the Number One censored story" of the year. Katie Meyer looks into a British survey of undocumented deaths in Iraq since the U.S. intervention in 2003.

By Katie Meyer

Over one million Iraqis died as a result of the US-led occupation of Iraq between March 2003 and August 2007, according to research conducted by the British polling group Opinion Research Business (ORB). But news of these findings never reached the US public since they were not covered by the corporate mainstream media. Without knowing the truth about the human costs of the war, the American public has been restricted from holding its government accountable.

The number of civilian lives lost due to the war in Iraq has thus been ranked the Number One Censored News Story for 2009 by Project Censored* - a media research group based at Sonoma University that annually ranks the top 25 items that should have been major news stories in the United States but were not.

"A censored news story is one which contains information that the general United States population has a right and need to know, but to which it has had limited access," states Project Censored. "We define modern censorship as the subtle yet constant and sophisticated manipulation of reality in our mass media outlets.''

The censorship of ORB's findings that over a million Iraqis were killed due to the war was significant because this research suggested that the death toll has been far greater than officially acknowledged. It is a higher number of people killed than during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. The nature of the killings in Iraq has been under-reported, since almost half of deaths reported were a result of gunshot wounds but these fatalities, unlike those caused by car bombings and aerial bombardments, rarely make the headlines. This research also confirmed an earlier controversial study published in the British medical journal The Lancet in October 2006 that many deaths in Iraq were due to gunshots.

The authors of the Project Censored's source article, Joshua Holland and Michael Schwartz, say that this fact challenges the dominant view of the violence in Iraq -- that most of the violence against Iraqis is being perpetrated by Iraqis themselves and is not the responsibility of the US military.

Examining The Results

The ORB, which had been surveying Iraqi opinion since 2005, conducted this research with their Iraqi fieldwork agency between August 12-19, 2007. The agency carried out a household survey of a representative sample of 1,499 adults aged 18+ across fifteen of Iraq's eighteen provinces. Two of Iraq's more volatile regions were excluded (Kerbala and Anbar) along with the northern province of Arbil, where local authorities refused permission. The respondents to the household survey answered the following question:

How many members of your household, if any, have died as a result of the conflict in Iraq since 2003 (i.e. as a result of violence rather than a natural death such as old age)? Please note that I mean those who were actually living under your roof.

Respondents replied as follows: None 78%, One 16%, Two 5%, Three 1%, Four or more 0.002%.

From these replies, the ORB estimated that the death toll between March 2003 and August 2007 is likely to have been 1,220,580. However, the agency added, with a 2.5% margin of error associated with the survey data, the number could range between 733,158 to a maximum of 1,446,063.

Overall, one in five respondents reported a death in the household due to war-related violence. In Baghdad, this number was as high as one death in every two households.

Of those Iraqis reported killed, 48% died from gunshot wounds, 20% from the impact of a car bomb, 9% from aerial bombardment, 6% as a result of an accident and 6% from some other form of blast/ordinance.

While this household survey yielded higher estimates of Iraqis killed under occupation than have other independent accounting efforts, such as those by Iraq Body Count, the World Health Organization in 2008 and The Lancet researchers in 2006, a January 2008 Washington Post article reported that, in fact, household surveys typically miss 30 to 50 percent of deaths.

"One reason is that some families that have suffered violent deaths leave the survey area," stated the article, rendering significant the fact that ORB did no surveys of the over 3 million Iraqi refugees that have fled since the war began. The article continued: "Some people are kidnapped and disappear, and others turn up months or years later in mass graves. Some are buried or otherwise disposed of without being recorded. In particularly violent areas, local governments have effectively ceased to function, and there are ineffective channels for collecting and passing information between hospitals, morgues and the central government."

Controversy Abounds

Counting the dead in Iraq since the 2003 invasion has been controversial. All Western government coalition troops that perish while on duty are reported. But Iraqi civilians are not. At the time of writing, a total of 4521 coalition soldiers (4207 US troops) were reported to have died in Iraq or in surrounding areas where troops have been stationed, including those killed by non-hostile causes such as accident or illness. However, the number of civilian and military Iraqis killed since the war began is a topic of debate, since the US military apparently does not track these numbers. Or if they do, they don't report them.

As John Sloboda and Hamit Dardagan, the co-founders of Iraq Body Count, which maintains a database of all reported civilian deaths in Iraq, stated in Peace Magazine, "Every human life is equally valuable, and there is absolutely no human justification for placing the honoring and remembering of US or UK casualties above that of Iraqi casualties. The failings of the West in this respect, are, and will be seen as, racist in general, and anti-Arab in particular."

Currently Iraq Body Count cites the number of Iraqi civilians killed since the invasion to be between 89,544 and 97,762 -- approximately a tenth of ORB's estimate. The difference stems from their methodologies: Iraq Body Count counts only those deaths that have been reported by at least two media sources, then integrating hospital, morgue, NGO, and official figures. ORB estimates are extrapolated from face-to-face surveys of a representative sample of citizens still in the country.

Peace And Justice In The Numbers

In 2005, an American humanitarian worker and peace activist, Marla Ruzicka, probed US military officials to determine the number of Iraqi civilians that had been killed under the occupation. Ruzicka headed an organization that she founded, Campaign for Innocent Victims In Conflict, which aimed to document civilians killed or injured by the US military, to assist Iraqis to seek compensation and to advocate for their protection.

She convinced a US Brigadier General to release the military's recorded numbers of non-combatants killed after he revealed that it was "standard operating procedure" for US troops to file a report when they shoot a civilian.

According to The Independent, Ruzicka had "obtained figures for the number of civilians killed in Baghdad between 28 February and 5 April [2005], and discovered that 29 had been killed in firefights involving US forces and insurgents. This was four times the number of Iraqi police killed."

On the day Ruzicka was to reveal her findings to the foreign press, she was killed in a suicide bombing, along with her Iraqi colleague, Faiz Ali Salim.

Days before her untimely death, she wrote: "In my dealings with the US military officials here, they have shown regret and remorse for the deaths and injuries of civilians. Systematically recording and releasing civilian casualty numbers would assist in helping the survivors to piece their lives back together."

Unlike the deaths of millions of Iraqis, Ruzicka's passing was extensively covered by the mainstream media in the United States.

Censoring The Story

According to Project Censored, the ORB's story was only covered by three alternative media outlets: After Downing Street, AlterNet, and Inter Press Service. Peace Magazine also found reports by the LA Times and The Observer dating from that period.

Writer Michael Schwartz of After Downing Street pointed to the ominous impact of censorship: a public lack of awareness. He wrote:

"The effectiveness of the media blackout is vividly illustrated by an Associated Press poll conducted in February 2007, which asked a representative sample of US residents how many Iraqis had died as a result of the war. The average respondent thought the number was under 10,000, about 2 percent of the actual total at that time. This remarkable mass ignorance...received no coverage in the mass media, not even by the Associated Press, which commissioned the study."

Thousands more Iraqis will have died before President-elect Barack Obama's pulls out the troops by December 2011.

*To conduct its annual ranking of the top 25 most censored nationally important news, Project Censored reviews between 700 and 1000 stories submitted from journalists, scholars, librarians, and concerned citizens around the world, assessing them for coverage, content, reliability of sources and national significance. Based at Sonoma State University, this media research team publishes the report Censored: Media Democracy in Action, based on a ranking of the Top 25 censored stories judges by such experts as Noam Chomsky, Mike Wallace and Howard Zinn.

Katie Meyer is an editor of Peace.

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2009

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2009, page 6. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Katie Meyer here

Peace Magazine homepage