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Newshour special investigation – Iraq War civilian deaths

Politics / Iraq War Mar 27, 2007 - 12:02 PM GMT

By: John_York

Politics

Following a Freedom of Information request, BBC World Service Newshour has learnt that a senior British Government official advised ministers to show "caution" about publicly criticising a report published last October in the Lancet, which estimated that 655,000 Iraqis have died as a result of the war in Iraq.

If the Lancet survey is correct, two-and-a-half per cent of the Iraqi population - an average of more than 500 people a day - have been killed since the start of the war.


The Chief Scientific Adviser to the British Ministry of Defence described the methods used by the Lancet survey as "close to best practice" adding that the "study design is robust."

A statistician at the Department of International Development said the method used in the survey was "tried and tested" and, if anything, could lead to an underestimate of the number of deaths.

The Lancet published the survey in October 2006.

It was conducted by the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and compared mortality rates before and after the invasion by surveying 47 randomly chosen areas across 16 provinces in Iraq.

The researchers spoke to nearly 1,850 families compromising more than 12,800 people.

In nearly 92% of cases family members produced death certificates to support their answers.

The survey estimated that 601,000 deaths were the result of violence, mostly gunfire.

Shortly after the survey's publication, Prime Minister Tony Blair's official spokesperson said the Lancet's figure was not anywhere near accurate.

He said the survey had used an extrapolation technique, from a relatively small sample from an area of Iraq that was not representative of the country as a whole.

The British Government says it prefers to use figures from the Iraqi Health Ministry.

These estimate deaths at less than one-tenth of the Lancet's figure.

United States President George W Bush said: "I don't consider it (the Lancet's) a credible report. Neither does General Casey and neither do Iraqi officials."

One of the documents just released by the Foreign Office is an email in which an official asks: "Are we really sure the report is likely to be right? That is certainly what the brief implies."

Another official replies:"We do not (not) accept the figures quoted in the Lancet survey as accurate."

In the same email the official later writes: "However the survey methodology used here can not be rubbished, it is a tried and test way of measuring mortality in conflict zones."

Asked how it can accept the Lancet's methodology but reject its findings, the Government has today issued a written statement:

"The methodology has been used in other conflict situations, notably the Democratic Republic of Congo. However the Lancet figures are much higher than statistics from other sources, which only goes to show how estimates can vary enormously according to the method of collection. There is considerable debate amongst the scientific community over the accuracy of the figures."

BBC World Service made a Freedom of Information request on 28 November 2006. The information was released on 14 March 2007.

BBC World Service Press Office


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