How many innocent people have died in Iraq as a result of the war?

That number is a political hot potato — and not merely for the reasons you probably think.

The Bush administration asserts that the violence in Iraq, “particularly in Baghdad,” has reversed the political gains that were reflected in the 2005 elections. By stabilizing the situation in and around the capital, they assert, the U.S. can help the current government control Iraq — and then presumably prepare to bring American troops home. President Bush, in his speech last week said:

The most urgent priority for success in Iraq is security, especially in Baghdad. Eighty percent of Iraq’s sectarian violence occurs within 30 miles of the capital.

What if the President is wrong about the facts on the ground? Or, given Iraqi geography, if his numbers are highly misleading?

What would that mean for the U.S. strategy?

In my view, it means the U.S. will at best replicate the initial “success” widely acknowledged in Afghanistan. If Hamid Karzai was only “Mayor of Kabul” long after the fall of the Taliban, then it would seem that the Bush administration plans only to make Jalal Talabani Mayor of Baghdad in 2007.

Let’s start with the debate about the violence.

Mainstream media outlets like AP report tens of thousands of civilians killed in Iraq since the war began. Various warbloggers try to minimize even these statistics by manipulating the numbers.

By contrast, many war foes cite a peer-reviewed study published in one of the world’s top medical journals that estimated perhaps 650,000 dead Iraqi civilians.**

What are the political implications of the latter figure?

Consider some month-old testimony by Johns Hopkins University scholar Dr. Gil Burnham (full transcript here), one of the researchers responsible for the study published in The Lancet.

So if we could summarize what the numbers are saying that we collected, we’re saying that the vast majority of deaths are due to violent causes, and we could say this — these violent deaths are spread across the country.

Now, most of the information we see on television and in the print comes from Baghdad. That’s the most accessible area. We found that Baghdad was not by any means the most violent area. So we found also that, as I say, violence has spread right across the country.

Dr. Les Roberts, also one of the Johns Hopkins coauthors, adds more revealing detail. He repeats the claim that under-reporting of violence is a major problem and hints at the political punchline:

According to the United Nations, the Iraqi government surveillance network reported exactly zero violent deaths from Anbar province in the month of July, in spite of all the contradictory evidence we saw if we watched CNN. The most widely cited sources — IBC, the United Nations, Brookings — report about 80% of all violent deaths coming from Baghdad. And as Dr. Burnham mentioned, Baghdad actually is only about as violent as the nation on average.

So here it is — one-fifth of the country reporting four-fifths of all violent deaths…

Roberts points out that the Iraq Study Group found the same media under-reporting when they examined the available evidence (p. 62). This doesn’t precisely corraborate the assertion about violence throughout Iraq, but it does challenge the assumptions of pro-escalation voices:

In addition, there is significant underreporting of the violence in Iraq. The standard for recording attacks acts as a filter to keep events out of reports and databases. A murder of an Iraqi is not necessarily counted as an attack. If we cannot determine the source of a sectarian attack, that assault does not make it into the database. A roadside bomb or a rocket or mortar attack that doesn’t hurt U.S. personnel doesn’t count. For example, on one day in July 2006 there were 93 attacks or significant acts of violence reported. Yet a careful review of the reports for that single day brought to light 1,100 acts of violence. Good policy is difficult to make when information is systematically collected in a way that minimizes its discrepancy with policy goals.

It would seem futile merely to stabilize Baghdad if the city with about 20% of Iraq’s population hosts a corresponding 20% of the violence.

Anbar province, which even the administration acknowledges is a very violent place, is set to receive only 4000 new troops under the President’s plan. About 30,000 troops are currently deployed there, and over one-third of the American forces killed in Iraq have died in Anbar. It is apparently the headquarters for the Sunni insurgency and the foreign fighters.

If Baghdad is “saved” (not a sure bet) while violence in Anbar and throughout Iraq continues to foment, then Iraq January 2008 will probably look a great deal like Afghanistan, October 2006.

Not good.

Notes: Today, on my blog, I explore the military’s own estimates of the number of innocents killed at checkpoints — and discuss the political meaning of these figures.

**Security scholars like me may not know whether to believe one set of numbers over the other, but we can confirm that the overwhelming majority of wartime victims are innocent civilians — typically about 90% of the total in contemporary war.

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