Attrition: Patterns of Death in Iraq

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November29, 2006: The violence in Iraq since 2003 has been unusual in several respects. For example;

@ The death rate has been increasing as Shia Arabs undertake more revenge attacks on Sunni Arabs. The government does not release data on the religion of victims, but reports from Iraqis indicates that over the last year, an increasing portion of the deaths are Sunni. Two thirds or more of the dead now appear to be Sunni Arabs. 

@ The violence has been concentrated in central and western Iraq, areas where the Sunni Arabs live, and often mixed together with Kurds or Shia Arabs. Death rates in the Kurdish north and Shia south have been at peacetime levels.

@ Only about ten percent of the deaths have been caused by U.S. troops. All the rest have been the result of terrorists, common criminals or Iraqi security forces. The number of civilians killed by U.S. troops is at a historical low. This is largely due to more accurate weapons, better trained and disciplined troops and strictly enforced rules of engagement. Thus for the Iraq war so far, the civilian death rate has been about 150 per 100,000 people per year. A century ago, during the four year Philippine Insurrection, civilians died at the rate of about 600 per 100,000 population per year. As in Iraq, many of those deaths were the result of local factions fighting each other. During the Vietnam war, the civilian death rate from military operations was about 400 per 100,000 per year, and, again, a lot of these were due to Vietnamese fighting each other. 

Up through the Summer of 2005, the death rate was running at about 45 dead per 100,000 population per year. This is far higher than the usual rate in Middle Eastern countries (under 10 per 100,000). Well, most of the time. During civil wars and insurrections, the rate has spiked to over a hundred per 100,000, sometimes for several years in a row. During Saddam's long reign, the Iraqi death rate from democide (the government killing its own people) averaged over 100 per 100,000 a year. This does not include the several hundred thousand killed during the war with Iran in the 1980s. 

There are other parts of the world that are more violent than Iraq. Africa, for example, especially Congo, Sudan and South Africa. Only South Africa has a sufficiently effective government to actually keep track of the death rate, mostly from crime, but it's over 50 per 100,000. It's worse in places like Congo and Sudan, but the numbers there are only estimates by peacekeepers and relief workers. In southern Thailand, a terror campaign by Islamic radicals has caused a death rate of over 80 per 100,000.

Iraq is getting better control of its vital statistics (births, deaths and the like), and felt confident to release those numbers. During Saddam's long reign, these numbers were kept haphazardly, largely because of the large number of Iraqis being killed by Saddams secret police and political enforcers. These deaths were often not recorded, or not recorded as murder. During his three decades of rule, Saddam killed half a million Kurds, and several hundred thousand Shia Arabs (and several thousand Sunni Arabs and Christian Arabs). During the 1990s, Saddam used access to food and medical care as a way to keep the Shia Arabs under control, but this process caused at least twenty thousand or more excess deaths a year (from disease and malnutrition). Foreign media, especially in Sunni Moslem nations, played down Saddam's homicides, just as they play up the current death toll in Iraq (which is still largely the result of violence by Sunni Arabs.)

In the last year, the death rate has gone up, and on a national level, it's about 150 per 100,000 per year. Since most of this is concentrated in central Iraq, where half the population lives, the rate there is about 300 per 100,000. Most of it is directed at the few million Sunni Arabs left in the country, which is why they are fleeing the country in increasing numbers. It's 1990s Yugoslavia all over again, except nearly all the refugees are Sunni Arabs. But, until about a year ago, most of the violence was from Sunni Arabs, whose numerous terror organizations (including foreign Sunnis working for al Qaeda) were doing most of the killing. The Kurds and Shia want revenge for that, as well as all the murders committed during Saddam's rule.