The Iraq War and Its Side Effects Killed Half a Million Iraqis

A new study takes into account conflict-crippled healthcare, water, and transportation systems.

A man cries during a funeral for a relative killed in a bomb attack in northern Baghdad's Shaab district. (Ceerwan Aziz/Reuters)

Estimating casualties of war is a difficult science. Exact counts are nearly impossible to achieve, especially in areas where violent conflict continues long after the last of foreign troops have withdrawn. Determining a death toll for Iraqi civilians during the eight-year U.S.-led occupation has proven especially challenging. Multiple attempts by different organizations have covered only a few years of the war, and the resulting tallies range from as low as just over 100,000 to as high as 600,000.

The latest estimates, detailed in a study published Tuesday in the journal PLOS Medicine, come from an investigation into the total number of Iraqi deaths between 2003 and 2011 by the University of Washington Department of Global Health. Nearly 40 percent of deaths in Iraq that occurred in that time period were a result of the U.S. conflict, researchers say, putting the death toll at about 461,000.

Researchers visited 2,000 randomly selected homes throughout the Middle Eastern country. They asked adults to recount births and deaths within their immediate and extended family since 2001. Through this canvassing, the researchers estimated 405,000 deaths could be attributed to the war through mid-2011. They made up the remaining several thousands in their final number by estimating mortality rates for about 2 million people who fled the country during the conflict.

Researchers say 60 percent of the 461,000 deaths are directly attributed to violence, such as gunshots (62 percent), car bombs (12 percent), and other explosions (9 percent). Nonviolent deaths were attributed to health problems stemming from crippled health care, clean water, nutrition, and transportation systems. For every three people killed by violence, two died as a result of crumbling infrastructure that supports these areas, according to the study.

The survey, however, like the others that came before it, is not without its limitations. The researchers state their casualty estimate with 95 percent certainty. The actual number, they write, could be as low as 48,000 or as high as 751,000. The researchers point to the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti as another example of a situation in which wildly dissimilar casualty counts were unavoidable. In the years since, the death toll for the natural disaster has been estimated to be anywhere between 46,000 and 316,000, revealing the problematic practice of calculating mortality.