Iraq: Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics


There is a deep irony that a US administration so loath to use statistics to gauge the success or failure of post-war Iraq is now "cooking the books" at will.

Indeed, many are now arguing that Iraq has turned the corner. Iraqi officials claim 46,000 Iraqi refugees have recently returned as one of the statistics of success. Yet, the United Nations disputes both the numbers and the reasons for the return, claiming a survey found that "46% were leaving because they could not afford to stay; 25% said they fell victim to a stricter Syrian visa policy; and only 14% said they were returning because they had heard about improved security."

Furthermore, as Michael Boyle pointed out in a more hopeful look at Iraq, the sectarian cleansing is such that refugees are returning to homogeneous neighborhoods. The UNHCR went further, warning Iraqis that they do "not believe that the time has come to promote, organize or encourage returns," given the volatile and unpredictable security situation in Iraq.

Such a discrepancy and the politicizing of statistics should not come as a shock. With the legacy of Vietnam never far from the minds of decision-makers, it was decided from the off that the US "doesn't do body counts" and would, instead, prefer a combination of pure belligerence in the face of disaster, combined with Orwellian rhetoric from the steadily more erratic Donald Rumsfeld. Responding to the 2003 looting of Baghdad, Rumsfeld explained that "Freedom's untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things." And when asked about whether the increasing violence was evidence of the war going badly, Rumsfeld reasoned in 2005 that "Death has a tendency to encourage a depressing view of war."

Despite the rhetoric claiming that the US is "in Iraq to free the Iraqis," Operation Iraqi Freedom avoided putting real effort into finding out how many Iraqis were dying in the circumstances they had brought about.

NGOs like Iraq Body Count (IBC) had to fill this information void. IBC is commonly used to provide the minimum numbers of Iraqis killed since 2003. Its range is currently between 77,333 and 84,250 dead. Yet a methodology that relies on evidence "drawn from crosschecked media reports of violent events leading to the death of civilians, or of bodies being found, and is supplemented by the careful review and integration of hospital, morgue, NGO and official figures" is limited at best. Iraq's ministries are run as fiefdoms by various sectarian parties, meaning there is little reason to think that information coming from them does not serve political means. "They are using this number because they want to show that Maliki is succeeding," said Salim Abdullah, a lawmaker and member of the largest Sunni bloc, known as the Accordance Front.

Meanwhile, the violence of 2006 was of such intensity that people were having their names and addresses tattooed on their bodies to avoid being delivered to morgues in the event of their death. This is one reason for the discrepancy between IBC's lowest number in November 2007 and the Lancet's October 2006 estimate that 650,000 Iraqis had died since the invasion.

What is interesting about the latest statistics is that the Iraqi government is taking the lead. This September, the difference between US and Iraqi data embarrassed General Petraeus who told Congress that the number of such killings had decreased nationwide by more than 55% since December. Meanwhile, the Iraqi government's statistics, which did not differentiate between sectarian and other violent deaths, put the December civilian death toll from war-related violence at 2,075, compared with 1,773 in August - a decline of less than 15%. With Maliki's government now seeking to bask in any reflected glory from the relative calm that has emerged in parts of Iraq, it seems that all officials are on-message.

Beyond the death tolls themselves, does a drop in violence signify success in Iraq? This may seem a strange question, but over the years, the US military has consistently described large-scale violence and multiple-fatality bombings as the "last-gasp" of the insurgency. Vice-president Cheney went so far as to explain that the "last throes" "can still be a violent period, the throes of a revolution." Meanwhile, Noah Feldman, a New York University law professor who worked for the US coalition in Iraq, argued that when violence recedes it is evidence that the insurgency is regrouping.

The truth of the matter is that nobody, regardless of their stance towards the original invasion, should ever argue with the positives of a drop in daily bloodshed. However, for these indices to be used by the US administration as evidence of success stinks of hypocrisy of the most macabre kind.

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