Madelyn Hsiao-Rei Hicks and colleagues provide a detailed analysis of Iraqi civilian violent deaths during 2003-2008 of the Iraq war and show that of 92,614 deaths, unknown perpetrators caused 74% of deaths, Coalition forces 12%, and Anti-Coalition forces 11%.
Armed violence is a major public health and humanitarian problem in Iraq. In this descriptive statistical analysis we aimed to describe for the first time Iraqi civilian deaths caused by perpetrators of armed violence during the first 5 years of the Iraq war: over time; by weapon used; by region (governorate); and by victim demographics.
Methods and Findings
We analyzed the Iraq Body Count database of 92,614 Iraqi civilian direct deaths from armed violence occurring from March 20, 2003 through March 19, 2008, of which Unknown perpetrators caused 74% of deaths (n = 68,396), Coalition forces 12% (n = 11,516), and Anti-Coalition forces 11% (n = 9,954). We analyzed the subset of 60,481 civilian deaths from 14,196 short-duration events of lethal violence to link individual civilian deaths to events involving perpetrators and their methods. One-third of civilian violent death was from extrajudicial executions by Unknown perpetrators; quadratic regression shows these deaths progressively and disproportionately increased as deaths from other forms of violence increased across Iraq's governorates. The highest average number of civilians killed per event in which a civilian died were in Unknown perpetrator suicide bombings targeting civilians (19 per lethal event) and Coalition aerial bombings (17 per lethal event). In temporal analysis, numbers of civilian deaths from Coalition air attacks, and woman and child deaths from Coalition forces, peaked during the invasion. We applied a Woman and Child “Dirty War Index” (DWI), measuring the proportion of women and children among civilian deaths of known demographic status, to the 22,066 civilian victims identified as men, women, or children to indicate relatively indiscriminate perpetrator effects. DWI findings suggest the most indiscriminate effects on women and children were from Unknown perpetrators using mortar fire (DWI = 79) and nonsuicide vehicle bombs (DWI = 54) and from Coalition air attacks (DWI = 69). Coalition forces had higher Woman and Child DWIs than Anti-Coalition forces, with no evidence of decrease over 2003–2008, for all weapons combined and for small arms gunfire, specifically.
Most Iraqi civilian violent deaths during 2003–2008 of the Iraq war were inflicted by Unknown perpetrators, primarily through extrajudicial executions that disproportionately increased in regions with greater numbers of violent deaths. Unknown perpetrators using suicide bombs, vehicle bombs, and mortars had highly lethal and indiscriminate effects on the Iraqi civilians they targeted. Deaths caused by Coalition forces of Iraqi civilians, women, and children peaked during the invasion period, with relatively indiscriminate effects from aerial weapons.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Civilian deaths through armed violence is a public health and humanitarian problem in all wars, despite internationally agreed humanitarian standards regarding the treatment of civilians during wars—so-called laws of war such as the Geneva Conventions. Since the Iraq war began on March 20, 2003, when a multilateral force led by US and UK troops invaded Iraq, more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians (women, children, noncombatants, and police carrying out nonparamilitary duties) have died because of armed violence, according to the Iraq Body Count (IBC), a nongovernmental project that collates media reports of deaths of individual Iraqi civilians and cross-checks these reports with data from hospitals, morgues, nongovernmental organizations, and official figures. Indeed, according to a recent assessment of the global burden of armed violence, in 2006, people living in Iraq had the highest risk of dying violently in conflict. In that year, there were 91 violent deaths per 100,000 people in the country.
Why Was This Study Done?
Detailed analysis of civilian deaths during wars is important because it can improve the understanding of the impact of these deaths on general public health and on vulnerable subgroups in the population. In addition, data collected on the nature and effects of violence can guide the development of preventative policies. For example, an analysis that reveals that air attacks by invading troops cause a high proportion of civilian deaths might encourage policy changes that prohibit air attacks on populated areas. Finally, by linking violent deaths to perpetrators, analyses of civilian deaths can provide an indicator of combatants' compliance with the laws of war, which require the protection of civilians from targeted or indiscriminate harm. Here, IBC researchers provide a descriptive statistical analysis of Iraqi civilian deaths directly caused by perpetrators of armed violence during the first 5 years of the Iraq war.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
According to data from the Iraq Body Count, more than 92,000 Iraqi civilians died because of armed violence during this period. Coalition forces (identified by uniforms) caused 12% of these deaths, anti-coalition forces (un-uniformed combatants identified by attacks on coalition targets) caused 11% of the deaths; and unknown perpetrators, who targeted civilians and were indistinguishable from their victims (for example, a suicide bomber in a market), were responsible for three-quarters of civilian deaths. To link individual deaths with perpetrators and their methods, the researchers analyzed the 60,481 civilian deaths caused by short-duration events of lethal violence (events that lasted less than 24 hours and that occurred in a specific location; for example, overnight air strikes). Extrajudicial executions by unknown perpetrators were responsible for one-third of these deaths and disproportionately increased as deaths from other forms of violence increased across Iraq. Unknown perpetrator suicide bombings that targeted civilians and coalition aerial bombings killed most civilians per lethal event (19 and 17 deaths per lethal event on average, respectively). Finally, the researchers calculated the proportion of women and children among civilian deaths. Because men are the main targets of armed violence, this proportion—the “Dirty War Index” (DWI)—indicates the scale of indiscriminate killing in a conflict. The most indiscriminate effects on women and children in Iraq were from unknown perpetrators firing mortars (DWI = 79) and nonsuicide vehicle bombs (DWI = 54), and from coalition air attacks (DWI = 69). Coalition forces had a higher DWI than anti-coalition forces for all weapons combined, with no decrease over the study period.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings show that during the first 5 years of the Iraq war, civilian deaths varied over time and location and in terms of victim characteristics and targeting of civilians. Although limited to direct deaths and possibly subject to some media bias, these findings show that most civilian deaths were inflicted by unknown perpetrators, and that unknown perpetrators had particularly lethal and indiscriminate effects on Iraqi civilians. However, they also show that Coalition forces had indiscriminate lethal effects on civilian populations. In part, this may be because Coalition forces had a high risk of killing civilians accidentally because they could not easily recognize anti-coalition combatants fighting without uniforms among civilians. Nevertheless, the relatively indiscriminate effects of Coalition aerial weapons highlight the need to change policies relating to the use of air power in future armed conflicts.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000415.
This study is further discussed in a PLoS Medicine Perspective by Robert Muggah
The International Committee of the Red Cross provides information about war and International humanitarian law (in several languages)
The Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence and Development Web site provides information on the global burden of armed violence
More details on the Iraq Body Count are available
The Human Security Report Project tracks global and regional trends in organized violence, their causes, and consequences
Every Casualty supports and is a resource for the documentation of individual casualties of armed conflict