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British group puts Iraq casualty toll at 21,700 to 55,000

Hard data elusive, doctors' report finds

WASHINGTON -- A British health group that opposed the war in Iraq released a report yesterday estimating that total casualties from the war could range from 21,700 to 55,000, though they acknowledged that their calculations were hampered by a lack of verifiable data.

Using a combination of public record estimates and statistical extrapolation, Medact, the British affiliate of the nonprofit International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, released its report as an attempt to assess the ongoing "health and environmental costs" of the war.

Although the Pentagon regularly produces detailed information about US troops wounded or killed, military officials have largely refused to quantify Iraqi civilian and military casualties. But critics of the war in Iraq have said that its effects cannot be accurately judged without that number.

"The most important thing that comes out of it is that the data are not available," said Dr. Victor W. Sidel, a past president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and an adviser to the study. "If you want other organizations to help [with the reconstruction of Iraq], you've got to provide the data on what the needs are, and it's virtually impossible to get the data out of the occupying powers."

The Boston-based Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and its affiliates -- Medact in the United Kingdom and Physicians for Social Responsibility in the US, as well as groups in other countries -- opposed the Iraq war.

The report acknowledged the problems inherent in trying to put a solid number on those killed.

"The difficulties in making a count are obvious -- death certification ceases, and bodies are blown to pieces, buried under rubble, burned beyond recognition or buried quickly, in accordance with Islamic custom," the report said. "Victors in modern wars may underestimate the number of dead and the vanquished overestimate them, so truth also becomes a casualty."

Using figures culled from the website IraqBodyCount.net, the study pegged the number of civilian deaths directly attributable to the war at between 7,757 and 9,565 as of Oct. 20. (As of yesterday, the site had updated its range to between 7,840 and 9,668.) The IraqBodyCount.net figures are derived from thousands of media reports from Iraq.

The Medact study places Iraqi military casualties at somewhere between 13,500 and 45,000.

"This is based on extrapolation from death rates of between 3 to 10 percent found in the units around Baghdad, although it is believed the overall casualty rate may lie closer to the lower figure," the report said.

Estimating nonlethal wounds for civilians or combatants is even more problematic. The report cited an assessment by the website suggesting that 20,000 civilians may have suffered injuries by July, though the Medact report noted that "reliable numbers of civilians injured during conflict are difficult to obtain."

On the combatant side, the report said "there are no reliable figures, but the number of wounded is generally calculated as three times the number of deaths, which gives a range of 40,500 to 135,000."

"It's guesswork, but it can be informed guesswork," said Michael O'Hanlon, a military specialist with the Brookings Institution.

The study also noted that other aspects of the war can have lingering adverse effects in Iraq. "Already seriously damaged by earlier wars and sanctions, the physical infrastructure [of Iraq] suffered further degradation in the 2003 war," the report said. "Less tangible but equally important is the social infrastructure, battered by oppression and war. Violence, poverty, unemployment, and family/community relationships all influence health and prospects for individual and community development."

Medact cited statistics suggesting that 7 percent of hospitals in Iraq were damaged during combat or postwar looting, including three that took direct hits, and a UN Children's Education Fund report that found 210,000 newborns were not immunized because vaccine storage facilities were damaged.

But O'Hanlon argued that overall, the war has benefitted Iraqis. He said that oil is being produced at a rate of more than 2 million barrels a day, electricity levels are now higher than prewar levels, and murder rates are starting to fall around the country.

"If you compare lost lives in the war plus lost lives in the turmoil that followed Saddam, you compare that to preexisting conditions with the sanctions plus Saddam's atrocities, conditions are not worse for Iraqis," O'Hanlon said.

Robert Schlesinger can be reached at schlesinger@globe.com

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