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Tuesday, November 30, 2004

More Depressing News From Iraq

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a comment on Crooked Timber about the Lancet study's estimate of violent death in Iraq:
The numbers I find fairly plausible are the figures for the post-war violent death rate. I think the authors’ definition of a household is less problematic over shorter time periods.

They don’t actually seem to report the violent death rate specifically, but some calculations show it to be 1.8 per 1000 (6 per 1000 with Falluja). Which translates to 44,000 per year (152,000 with Falluja). So, they’re pretty big numbers.

In the US, very high murder rates are something like 0.7 per 1000 (in places like Detroit in the early 1990s). So living in Iraq today seems to be something like living in the worst neighborhoods of Detroit, DC, or New Orleans during a high crime year.

So, even though I don’t believe the study’s pre-war figures, I think these are pretty depressing and believable numbers.
Today, Crooked Timber links to another depressing story from Iraq, about the soaring murder rate there:
“Our morgue was designed to cope with between five and ten bodies a day,” explained Kais Hassan, the harrassed statistician whose job it is to record the capital’s suspicious deaths. He gestured into the open door of a refrigeration unit at the stomach-turning sight of tangled corpses inside, male and female, shaded with the brown and green hues of death. “Now we’re getting 20 to 30 in here a day. It’s a disaster.”
This is just the latest in an endless series of these stories. The NY Times ran a good story a few months ago, and there have been many others. It seems like every reporter in Iraq pays a visit to the Baghdad morgue (but only a single visit).

The Baghdad figures, which count "suspicious deaths" that the morgue investigates as possible murders, provide a nice check of the Lancet numbers. The morgue numbers suggest a post-war suspicious death rate in Baghdad of 1.5 per 1000, double or triple the pre-war rate of 0.5 or 0.7 per 1000. (Click on "###" at the end for details about the calculations).

The post-war rate is right in line with the Lancet figure of 1.8 violent deaths per 1000 in Iraq excluding Falluja. But the Lancet estimate of 0.1 violent deaths per 1000 before the war is very different from the morgue figure. Admittedly, these are pretty back-of-the-envelope calculations, but I think they provide some evidence that the Lancet study got the post-war death rate fairly right, but botched the pre-war rate.

The London Times quotes a morgue doctor who offers a pretty good summary of the whole mess.
The mortuary staff cannot agree whether the present situation could be described as better or worse than that which existed under Saddam Hussein...The staff also remember when hundreds of victims of mass execution were dumped by the Baathist authorities at the mortuary and relatives were too frightened to collect them.

"Better or worse is irrelevant — they’re both bad," Dr Hassan said. "And it could have been so easy for the Americans. Why did they disband the army and police last year and allow those weapons and munitions to pour into the hands of criminals in our streets? Why did they leave us for a year with no national army and police? I don’t know. Now we all suffer — them and us. Am I depressed? All the time."

Figures from the NY and London Times suggest that there will be about 7500 "suspicious deaths" investigated as possible murders by the Baghdad Morgue by the end of this year. In 2002, before the war, there were 3,500 such deaths according to the Boston Globe, while the NY Times suggests that pre-war rates of suspcious deaths were about a third present rates.

Baghdad is a city of about 5 million people, which gives us a "suspicious death" rate of 1.5 per 1000 after the war, and 0.7 per 1000 before the war (or maybe 0.5 if the NY Times is right). So the post-war violent death rate is right in line with the Lancet's estimate of 1.8 per 1000 (with the caveat that suspicious deaths in Baghdad aren't the same thing as violent deaths in Iraq). But the pre-war violent death rate in the Lancet was 0.1 per 1000, very different from the rate suggested by the figures from the Baghdad morgue.


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