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Iraqi Casualty Toll Difficult to Certify

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Here's one number that helps us track the war in Iraq. It came up yesterday when President Bush took some questions.

(Soundbite of press conference)

Unidentified Reporter: I'd like to know the approximate total of Iraqis who have been killed. And by Iraqis, I include civilians, military police, insurgents.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: How many Iraqi citizens have died in this war? I would say 30,000, more or less, have died as a result of the initial incursion and the ongoing violence against Iraqis.

INSKEEP: The president went on to say that more than 2,100 Americans have been killed.

We're going now to Michael O'Hanlon, who's a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution. He's been following the number of Iraqi casualties since the war began. He's on the phone.

Good morning, Mike.

Mr. MICHAEL O'HANLON (The Brookings Institution): Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How unusual was it to hear the president use that number: 30,000 Iraqi dead?

Mr. O'HANLON: Quite surprising. In fact, the president has not talked about these sorts of numbers before in this war, and I can't remember a post-Vietnam president doing so about enemy casualties in any of our more limited operations since then, and I was quite surprised that the president would go into this area, but of course, the questioner pushed him there. I give Mr. Bush credit for having given some information, and it shows that he's conscious of this very human toll of the war, so I think it was a good thing that he responded.

INSKEEP: We should mention that the White House has since downplayed the information the president gave, saying it wasn't an official number, that it was based on public estimates cited by media reports. That does raise the question, since you've been tracking other estimates of the war: Does this seem like it's an accurate number of Iraqi dead?

Mr. O'HANLON: Yes, it's about as accurate as one can be. It's probably the lower end of the plausible range, but all these numbers are quite uncertain by at least 50 percent in either direction. And then there's the big ambiguity about whether you should count victims of routine crime, because the law and order environment has really broken down since the invasion, and therefore, that's related to our presence in Iraq. But it's not necessarily a direct result of the insurgent activity or our response to it. And if you count the increased murder rate in the total number of war casualties, you could get a number at least twice as high. But Mr. Bush is certainly in the plausible range.

INSKEEP: Is it possible to break down that roughly 30,000 number at all, to say, for example, how many were insurgents killed by US forces, how many were civilians killed by friendly fire, how many were civilians killed by insurgent bombs?

Mr. O'HANLON: Well, we do know that probably 500 or more Iraqi civilians are dying per month from insurgent activity--car bombs and the like. We also can guesstimate that probably 200 to 500 insurgents per month are being killed by US forces, but the Pentagon has always lumped together its estimates of those killed with those arrested, and therefore, we don't have very good official data on the number of insurgents being killed. In broad terms, though, I would say if you just had to guess or average numbers, the United States is probably killing 200 or 500 insurgents a month, inadvertently killing several dozen civilians or maybe a few more than that in the process, and the insurgents are killing many hundred Iraqi civilians per month, for a grant total in the range of a thousand war dead per month and may another thousand people dying from the increased murder rate.

INSKEEP: Is it normal to have difficulty determining the number of non-military casualties on a battlefield?

Mr. O'HANLON: Oh, it's absolutely always hard because you can't get access to the people and the places where the fighting has occurred. Often this is happening in difficult places where we have small squads of forces returning fire after a roadside bomb goes off, or something like that, and to be able to do a precise count, you've have to go in and have people trust you and share information about who was killed in these raids, and often they don't want to share that information.

INSKEEP: Mike, thanks very much.

Mr. O'HANLON: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: Michael O'Hanlon is a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.