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IRAQ: Controversy boils over Iraq death estimate

February 5, 2009 |  6:55 am

Iraqgrief It is one of the enduring questions of the Iraq war: How many civilians have died in sectarian bloodshed, terrorist bombings and other war-related violence since the U.S. invasion of March 2003? Estimates have ranged from tens of thousands to more than 1 million, but in the latest controversy arising from attempts to answer the question, researchers in the United States have taken issue with a 2006 study that put the number then at more than 600,000.

The number made headlines because it was far higher than anything the Iraqi government was reporting. The reactions, including a dismissal of the estimate from then-President George W. Bush, underscored the sensitivity of the mortality issue as Iraqi and U.S. officials sought to quell what they said were gross inaccuracies that could make things appear worse in Iraq than they already were.  Now, the American Assn. for Public Opinion Research has accused the study's lead author, Johns Hopkins University professor Gilbert Burnham, of violating professional ethics by not responding to its requests for information on how he reached his conclusions.

In a press release, AAPOR did not blatantly reject Burnham's findings, but it said his refusal to answer its questions was troubling. According to the organization, an investigation into Burnham's polling practices was launched last March and led to questions of the Johns Hopkins professor. "When researchers draw important conclusions and make public statements and arguments based on survey research data, then subsequently refuse to answer even basic questions about how their research was conducted, this violates the fundamental standards of science, seriously undermines open public debate on critical issues, and undermines the credibility of all survey and public opinion research," Richard A. Kulka, AAPOR president, said in a statement. See the entire release here.   

In an Associated Press story, Johns Hopkins spokesman Tim Parsons notes that neither the school nor Burnham, co-director of its Center for Refugee and Disaster Response, are AAPOR members, and he expresses "disppointment" in the organization's statements. Burnham has said his numbers were the result of a survey of hundreds of Iraqi households in which people were asked to compare the number of family members alive in 2002 and the number alive in 2006. Researchers also asked for causes of death and death certificates to verify respondents' answers, according to an explanation of the polling method.

At the time Burnham's poll was released, Iraq's government was estimating the civilian death toll as a result of the war at about 40,000. The huge disparity came on top of an Iraqi government dispute with the United Nations over its casualty numbers, which were far lower than Burnham's but much higher than the Iraqi government's. In 2007, the Iraqi government stopped providing the U.N. casualty numbers after the United Nations reported that 34,452 civilians had died in war-related violence in 2006, while the Iraqi government put the number at 12,357.

Adding to the confusion, a poll conducted by the British polling agency O.R.B. released in September 2007 and based on interviews with 1,720 Iraqi adults concluded that 1.2 million Iraqis may have died since the American invasion as a result of the war.

-- Tina Susman in Baghdad

Photo: A mourner cries out in a van carrying coffins of two people who died in what was said to be an American airstrike in Sadr City. The U.S. said it had no report of any strike or civilian casualties.

Credit: KARIM KADIM/AP

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