Counting Civilian Casualties: Media Organizations Are Relying on a Little-Known Group That Started in England for the Best Estimate of Civilian Deaths in Iraq

Article excerpt

In articles about the civilian toll of the Iraq war, Gen. Tommy Franks, former commander-in-chief of the U.S. Central Command, is frequently quoted as having said, "We don't do body counts." His words are often followed by the latest numbers from an organization that does: Iraq Body Count, a group that has tracked thousands of civilian deaths based on media reports.

What started as the personal project of a group of writers, professors and peace activists in the United Kingdom and the United States, all vehemently opposed to the war, has become the primary source of civilian casualty numbers for many national and international news organizations, including the Washington Post, United Press International and the Times of London.

Why Iraq Body Count? Mainly because there aren't many other sources to choose from.

In the absence of government data or comprehensive media studies, news outlets wanting to give some indication of how civilians have suffered have turned to this little-known band of volunteers.

The Brookings Institution's Iraq Index provides a monthly estimate, but it's a modified version of Iraq Body Count's numbers. Then there's the estimate of a Johns Hopkins research team whose report was published by the Lancet medical journal in October 2004. Using a random sampling technique, the researchers estimated about 100,000 civilian deaths.

No group besides Iraq Body Count provides a running tally. At press time, the organization reported a minimum of 22,850 and a maximum of 25,881 Iraqi civilian deaths resulting from the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Brookings provides two ranges for deaths since March 19, 2003: a lower estimate of 12,700 to 23,000 and a higher estimate, which includes Iraqis killed by acts of crime, of 29,700 to 60,800. For the first range, Brookings uses Iraq Body Count's reports for the lower figure and calculates the higher number based on discrepancies between Iraq Body Count's figures during major combat operations and statements by the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior. Modifications aside, Adriana Lins de Albuquerque, senior research analyst at Brookings, says the group provides a good source of data, adding, "Their methodology seems sound."

For more than a year, the Washington Post usually has run a weekly two-column Iraq war graphic that lists both military and civilian casualty numbers, using Iraq Body Count's estimates for the latter. Assistant Managing Editor for Foreign News David Hoffman says the paper began including civilian casualty numbers because readers were asking for them. "We realize that there is no perfect source here," he says, but Iraq Body Count was the best choice because it uses published, archived information.

Founders John Sloboda, a psychology professor at Keele University in Stafford-shire, England, and Hamit Dardagan, a freelance researcher in London, joined with friends, colleagues and acquaintances to form Iraq Body Count in January 2003. Sloboda and Dardagan decided to apply the methodology of a similar study of Afghan civilian deaths by Marc Herold, a professor at the University of New Hampshire (see "The Civilian Casualty Conundrum," April 2002). The Web site, www.iraqbodycount.org, made its debut in April 2003, shortly after the invasion.

Sloboda, Dardagan and their team make no effort to hide their opposition to the war. ("However many civilians are killed in the onslaught on Iraq, their death toll should not go unnoticed by those who are paying--in taxes--for their slaughter," the Web site states.) But to critics of their politics, they respond that their research can be verified. "If our methodology is transparent and public, then our political views are irrelevant. Any third party can assess the data for him- or herself," the founders wrote in a chapter of the book "The Iraq War and Democratic Politics."

Here's how it works: An Iraq Body Count researcher tracks civilian deaths reported by online news sources that range from the Associated Press and Reuters to Qatar-based Al Jazeera and Washington, D. …