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Burying The Lancet Report
O ver a year ago an international team of epidemiologists, head- ed by Les Roberts of Johns Hop- kins School of Public Health, completed a “cluster sample survey” of civilian casualties in Iraq. Its findings contradicted central elements of what politicians and journalists had presented to the U.S. public and the world. After excluding any possible statistical anomalies, they estimated that at least 98,000 Iraqi civilians had died in the previous 18 months as a direct result of the invasion and occupation of their country. They also found that violence had become the leading cause of death in Iraq during that period. Their most significant finding was that the vast majority (79 percent) of violent deaths were caused by “coalition” forces using “helicopter gunships, rockets or other forms of aerial weaponry,” and that almost half (48 percent) of these were children, with a median age of 8.
When the team’s findings were published in the Lancet , the official journal of the British Medical Association, they caused quite a stir and it seemed that the first step had been taken toward a realistic accounting of the human cost of the war. The authors made it clear that their results were approximate. They discussed the limitations of their methodology at length and emphasized that further research would be invaluable in giving a more precise picture.
A year later, we do not have a more precise picture. Soon after the study was published, U.S. and British officials launched a concerted campaign to discredit its authors and marginalize their findings without seriously addressing the validity of their methods or presenting any evidence to challenge their conclusions. Today the continuing aerial bombardment of Iraq is still a dark secret to most Americans and the media present the same general picture of the war, focusing on secondary sources of violence.
Roberts has been puzzled and disturbed by this response to his work, which stands in sharp contrast to the way the same governments responded to a similar study he led in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2000. In that case, he reported that about 1.7 million people had died during 22 months of war and, as he says, “Tony Blair and Colin Powell quoted those results time and time again without any question as to the precision or validity.” In fact the UN Security Council promptly called for the withdrawal of foreign armies from the Congo and the U.S. State Department cited his study in announcing a grant of $10 million for humanitarian aid.
Roberts conducted a follow-up study in the Congo that raised the fatality estimate to three million and Tony Blair cited that figure in his address to the 2001 Labor Party conference. In December 2004 Blair dismissed the epidemiological team’s work in Iraq, claiming, “Figures from the Iraqi Ministry of Health, which are a survey from the hospitals there, are in our view the most accurate survey there is.”
This statement by Blair is particularly interesting because the Iraqi Health Ministry reports, whose accuracy he praised, have confirmed the Johns Hopkins team’s conclusion that aerial attacks by “coalition” forces are the leading cause of civilian deaths. One such report was cited by Nancy Youssef in the Miami Herald of September 25, 2004 under the headline “U.S. Attacks, Not Insurgents, Blamed for Most Iraqi Deaths.” The Health Ministry had been reporting civilian casualty figures based on reports from hospitals, as Blair said, but it was not until June 2004 that it began to differentiate between casualties inflicted by “coalition” forces and those from other causes. From June 10 to September 10 it counted 1,295 civilians killed by U.S. forces and their allies and 516 kill- ed in “terrorist” operations. Health Ministry officials told Youssef that the “statistics captured only part of the death toll,” and emphasized that aerial bombardment was largely responsible for the higher numbers of deaths caused by the “coalition.” The breakdown (72 percent U.S.) is remarkably close to that attributed to aerial bombardment in the Lancet survey (79 percent).
BBC World Affairs editor John Simpson, in another Health Minis- try report covering July 1, 2004 to January 1, 2005, cited 2,041 civilians killed by U.S. and allied forces versus 1,233 by “insurgents” (only 62 percent U.S.). Then something strange happened. The Iraqi Health Minister’s office contacted the BBC and claimed, in a convoluted and confusing statement, that their figures had somehow been misrepresented. The BBC issued a retraction and details of deaths caused by “coalition” forces have been notably absent from subsequent Health Ministry reports.
Official and media criticism of Roberts’s work has focused on the size of his sample, 988 homes in 33 clusters distributed throughout the country, but other epidemiologists reject the notion that this is controversial.
Michael O’Toole, the director of the Center for International Health in Australia, says: “That’s a classical sample size. I just don’t see any evidence of significant exaggeration…. If anything, the deaths may have been higher because what they are unable to do is survey families where everyone has died.”
Roberts has also compared his work in Iraq to other epidemiological studies: “In 1993, when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control randomly called 613 households in Milwaukee and concluded that 403,000 people had developed Cryptosporidium in the largest outbreak ever recorded in the developed world, no one said that 613 households was not a big enough sample. It is odd that the logic of epidemiology embraced by the press every day regarding new drugs or health risks somehow changes when the mechanism of death is their armed forces.”
The campaign to discredit Roberts, the Johns Hopkins team, and the Lancet used the same methods that the U.S. and British governments have employed consistently to protect their monopoly on “responsible” storytelling about the war. By dismissing the study’s findings out of hand, U.S. and British officials created the illusion that the authors were suspect or politically motivated and discouraged the media from taking them seriously. This worked disturbingly well. Even opponents of the war continue to cite much lower figures for civilian casualties and innocently attribute the bulk of them to Iraqi resistance forces or “terrorists.”
The figures most often cited for civilian casualties in Iraq are those collected by Iraqbodycount, but its figures are not intended as an estimate of total casualties. Its methodology is to count only those deaths that are reported by at least two “reputable” international media outlets in order to generate a minimum number that is more or less indisputable. Its authors know that thousands of deaths go unreported in their count and say they cannot prevent the media misrepresenting their figures as an actual estimate of deaths.
Beyond the phony controversy regarding the methodology of the Lancet report, there is one issue that does cast doubt on its findings. This is the decision to exclude the cluster in Fallujah from its computations due to the much higher number of deaths that were reported there (even though the survey was completed before the wide- ly reported assault on the city in November 2004). Roberts wrote, in a letter to the Independent , “Please understand how extremely conservative we were: we did a survey estimating that 285,000 people have died due to the first 18 months of invasion and occupation and we reported it as at least 100,000.”
The dilemma he faced was this: in the 33 clusters surveyed, 18 reported no violent deaths (including one in Sadr City), 14 other clusters reported a total of 21 violent deaths and the Fallujah cluster reported 52 violent deaths. This last number is conservative because, as the report stated, “23 households of 52 visited were either temporarily or permanently abandoned. Neighbors interviewed described widespread death in most of the abandoned homes but could not give adequate details for inclusion in the survey.”
Leaving aside this last factor, there were three possible interpretations of the results from Fallujah. The first, and indeed the one Roberts adopted, was that the team had randomly stumbled on a cluster of homes where the death toll was so high as to be totally unrepresentative and therefore not relevant to the survey. The second possibility was that this pattern among the 33 clusters, with most of the casualties falling in one cluster and many clusters reporting zero deaths, was an accurate representation of the distribution of civilian casualties in Iraq under “precision” aerial bombardment. The third possibility was that the Fallujah cluster was atypical, but not sufficiently abnormal to warrant total exclusion from the study, so that the number of excess deaths was somewhere between 100,000 and 285,000. Without further research, there is no way to determine which of these three possibilities is correct.
No new survey of civilians killed by “coalition” forces has been produced since the Health Ministry report last January, but there is strong evidence that the air war has intensified during this period. Independent journalists have described the continuing U.S. assault on Ramadi as “Fallujah in slow motion.” Smaller towns in Anbar province have been targets of air raids for the past several months, and towns in Diyala and Baghdad provinces have also been bombed. Seymour Hersh has covered the “under-reported” air war in the New Yorker and writes that the current U.S. strategy is to embed U.S. Special Forces with Iraqi forces to call in air strikes as U.S. ground forces withdraw, opening the way for heavier bombing with even less media scrutiny (if that is possible).
One ignored feature of the survey’s results is the high number of civilian casualties reported in Fallujah in August 2004. It appears that U.S. forces took advantage of the media focus on Najaf at that time to conduct very heavy attacks against Fallujah. This is perhaps a clue to the strategy by which they have conducted much of the air war. The heaviest bombing and aerial assault at any given time is likely to be somewhere well over the horizon from any well-publicized U.S. military operation, possibly involving only small teams of Special Forces on the ground. But cynical military strategy does not let the media off the hook for their failure to find out what is really going on and tell the outside world about it. Iraqi and other Arab journalists can still travel through most of the country and news editors should pay close attention to their reports from areas that are too dangerous for Western reporters.
A second feature of the epi- demiologists’ findings that has not been sufficiently explored is the one suggested above by Michael O’Toole. Since their report establishes that aerial assault and bombardment is the leading cause of violent death in Iraq and, since a direct hit by a 500 pound Mark 82 bomb will render most houses uninhabitable, any survey that disregards damaged, uninhabited houses is sure to underreport deaths. This should be taken into account by any follow-up studies.
Thanks to Roberts, his international team, Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, and the editorial board of the Lancet , we have a clearer picture of the violence taking place in Iraq than that presented by “mainstream” media. Allowing for 16 months of the air war and other deaths since the completion of the survey, we have to estimate that somewhere between 185,000 and 700,000 people have died as a direct result of the war. Coalition forces have killed anywhere from 70,000 to 500,000 of them, including 30,000 to 275,000 children under the age of 15.
Roberts has cautioned me to remember that whether someone is killed by a bomb, a heart attack during an air strike, or a car accident fleeing the chaos, those who initiated the war and who “stay the course” bear the responsibility.
As someone who has followed this war closely, I find the results of the study to be consistent with what I have seen gradually emerging as the war has progressed, based on the work of courageous, mostly independent reporters, and glimpses through the looking glass as more and more cracks appear in the “official story.”
Nicolas J.S. Davies is indebted to Med- ialens, a British media watchdog group, for some of the material in this report. This article was first published by Online Journal.
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AnnouncementsLABOR - May 1 is May Day. Workers of the world will celebrate the 124th anniversary of International Worker’s Day. Born out of a call for an 8-hour workday in the United States, this day is an opportunity for all workers to show their solidarity with one another, as well as to renew the call for labor rights.
FARM CONFERENCE - The Farm Conference on Community and Sustainability will be held May 24-26 in Summertown, TN, in partnership with the Fellowship of Intentional Communities. Tour green homes, see sustainable food production, learn about solar installations, alternative education, midwifery, and more.
Contact: Douglas@thefarmcommunity.com; http://www.thefarmcommunity.com/.
PALESTINE - The Conference of the Palestinian Shatat in North American will be held June 3-5 in Vancouver. The conference will examine the future of the Palestinian liberation movement.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.palestinianconference.org/.
LABOR - The Pacific Northwest Labor History Association’s 45th annual conference will be held May 3-5, in Portland, OR. This year’s theme is Labor Under Attack: Learning from the Past and Preparing for the Future. A call for presentations, workshops and papers is currently underway.
Contact: PNLHA, 27920 68th Ave. East, Graham, WA 98338; 206-406-2604; PNLHA1@aol.com; http://www3.telus.net.
MARIJUANA - On the first Saturday of May marijuana legalization activists will hold informational and educational events, rallies and marches in over 300 cities around the world.
ECONOMICS - The Union For Radical Political Economics will hold its 39th annual conference May 9-11 in New York City.
RECLAIM THE DREAM - The 2013 Poor People’s Campaign & March from Baltimore to Washington D.C. will be May 11. Communities, schools and unions interested in participating are encouraged to contact the Baltimore People’s Assembly.
Contact: 410-500-2168; 410-218-4835; BaltimorePeoplesAssembly@gmail.com; Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Baltimore and the Baltimore Peoples Power Assembly, 2011 N. Charles St., Baltimore, MD 21218.
MOTHER’S DAY - The 17th Annual Mother’s Day Walk For Peace will be May 12th, in Dorchester, MA. The walk began in 1996 for families who had lost children to violence. The day has become a way for thousands of people to financially support the work of the Louis Brown Peace Institute.
Contact: http://www.ldbpeaceinstitute.org/; http://mothersdaywalk4peace.org/.
NATO 5 - An International Week of Solidarity with the NATO 5 has been called for May 16-21. Supports call on supporters to raise awareness of the NATO 5 and support funds for the defendants on the one-year anniversary of their preemptive arrests.
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MOUNTAINTOP - The 2013 Mountain Justice Summer Activist Training Camp will be held May 19-27 in Damascus, VA. It will be a week of workshops, field trips to view Mountain Top Removal coal mines, direct actions, and service project.
FEMINIST SCI-FI - The feminist science fiction convention WisCon 37 is scheduled for May 24-27 in Madison, WI.
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ANARCHY FEST - A month-long Festival of Anarchy is scheduled for May in Montreal. The festival includes The Montreal Anarchist Bookfair (May 19-20).
Contact: http://www.anarchistbookfair.ca/; http://www.radicalmontreal.com/.
LABOR - The International Labor Rights Forum will present: Down the Supply Chain, Driving Corporate Accountability, on May 22 in Washington, DC. The Labor Rights Awards Ceremony and Reception will honor pioneers in supply chain worker organizing, working solidarity and international labor rights policy.
MULTICULTURE - The 26th annual National Conference on Race & Ethnicity in American Higher Education (NCORE) will take place May 28-June 1, in New Orleans.
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MEDIA - The 2013 Alliance for Community Media Annual Conference will be held May 29-31, in San Francisco, CA. Participants will include educators, community leaders, media professionals, journalists, nonprofit leaders, policymakers and students.
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BRADLEY MANNING - On June 1, a rally will be held at Fort Meade in support of Bradley Manning.
BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike-A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides scheduled, music, exhibitors and more.
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LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in New York City.
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VEGAN FEST - Mad City Vegan Fest will be held in Madison, WI, June 8. The annual event features food, speakers, and exhibitors.
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ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16, in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops on civil rights, media and other topics.
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CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5 day Seminar at University of Havana, plus visits to a cooperative, urban garden, community development project, social research centers, and educational & medical institutions.
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NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
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MEDIA - The 15th annual Allied Media Conference will be held June 20-23, in Detroit.
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GRASSROOTS - The United We Stand Festival will be hosted by Free & Equal, June 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The festival aims to reform the electoral process throughout the U.S.
SOCIALISM - The Socialism 2013 Conference is scheduled for June 27-30 in Chicago, featuring talks and panel discussions.
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LITERACY - The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) will hold its conference July 12-13 in Los Angeles under the heading, Intersections: Teaching and Learning Across Media.
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IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from branches across the continent to learn new skills and build One Big Union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13th, the 11th Annual Peacestock: A Gathering for Peace, will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
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CHILDREN’S DEFENSE - July 15-19, join clergy, seminarians, Christian educators, young adult leaders and other faith-based advocates for children at CDF Haley Farm in Clinton, Tennessee, for five days of spiritual renewal, networking, movement building workshops, and continuing education about the urgent needs of children at the 19th annual Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry.
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ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference in the world.
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LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations and panel discussions.
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LABOR - The Eastern Conference For Workplace Democracy: Growing Our Cooperatives, Growing Our Communities, will be held at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA, July 26-28.
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WOMEN/LYNNE STEWART- Radical Women is asking for support letters and cards to be sent to Lynne Stewart. Stewart is a civil rights attorney and political prisoner who is currently in jail. She has breast cancer and authorities have denied her request for transfer from her Texas prison to the New York City hospital where she received medical attention during a prior bout of breast cancer. Send messages and cards to: Lynne Stewart 53504-054, Federal Medical Center Carswell, P.O. Box 27137, Fort Worth, TX 76127.
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HAITI/WOMEN - Haiti’s government is considering a legal reform measure that would prohibit and punish all sexual assault, including marital rape. MADRE and the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict are launching a petition to raise international support for this push to address violence against women in Haiti.
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SYRIA/MIDDLE EAST - The Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA) is currently seeking funds to assist more than 200,000 refugees fleeing violence in Syria.
FOLK FESTIVAL - The Falcon Ridge Folk Festival will be held August 2-4, in the Berkshires, NY.
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WAR RESISTERS - The War Resisters League will hold its 90th anniversary conference, Revolutionary Nonviolence: Building Bridges Across Generations and Communities, August 1-4, at Georgetown University. The event will focus on the U.S.’ long history of antimilitarism.
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POPULAR ECONOMICS - The Center for Popular Economics is holding its 2013 Summer Institute August 4-9 at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. No background in economics is needed for this intensive training. This year’s theme is, The Care Economy: Building a Just Economy with a Heart.
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VETERANS - Veterans for Peace is holding the 28th annual convention August 6-11 in Madison, WI. This year’s theme is, Power To The Peaceful.
DEMOCRACY - The Democracy Convention will take place August 7-11 in Madison, WI. The convention brings together nine conferences including topics such as media, education, defense, race, environment and others.
MEN - The 38th National Conference on Men & Masculinity: Forging Justice: Creating Safe, Equal and Accountable Communities, presented in partnership with HAVEN, will be held in Detroit, MI, August 8-10.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.nomas.org/.
OCCUPY - An Occupy National Gathering will be held in Kalamazoo, MI, August 21-25.
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COMMUNITIES - The Communities Conference is a networking and learning opportunity for co-operative or communal lifestyles, with workshops, events and entertainment; scheduled for August 30-September 2 at the Twin Oaks Community in Louisa, Virginia.
LABOR DAY - The 29th annual Bread and Roses Festival, a celebration of the ethnic diversity and labor history of Lawrence, MA, will be held September 2, in honor of the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike. There will be music, dance, poetry, drama, ethnic food, historical demonstrations, walking & trolley tours.
Contact: PO Box 1137, Lawrence, MA 01842; 978-794-1655; http://www.breadandrosesheritage.org/.
OCCUPY WALL STREET - September 17 is the two-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Events are planned in New York City and worldwide.
TEACHERS - The 13th Annual Conference, “Teaching for Social Justice: The Politics of Pedagogy,” will be held October 12 in San Francisco, CA. The free event features workshops, resources, and free childcare.
Contact: 415-676-7844; email@example.com; http://www.t4sj.org/.
HAITI - International Action, which brings clean water and chlorinators to Haiti, seeks office space capable of housing up to six people and their office equipment.
Contact: Zach Bremer, Zbrehmer@haitiwater.org; 202-488-0735; http://www.haitiwater.org/.
MEDIA - The Union for Democratic Communications and Project Censored are sponsoring a joint conference on media democracy, media activism and social justice to be held November 1-3 at the University of San Francisco. Proposals for presentations, workshops and panels from activists and critical scholars are invited.