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Iraq: Casualties

Volume 685: debated on Thursday 19 October 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What assessment they have made of the estimate that the total number of deaths in Iraq following the invasion in 2003 could have been 655,000.

My Lords, every civilian death is a tragedy and must be of concern in Iraq, as elsewhere. However, we continue to believe that there are no comprehensive or reliable figures for deaths since 2003. Estimates vary according to the method of collection. The figure of 655,000 given in the recent Lancet survey is significantly higher than other estimates, including those provided by the Iraqi Government. We believe that the Iraqi Government are best placed to monitor deaths among their own civilians.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. But rather than boasting as the American commander did at the beginning, “We don’t do body bags”, would it not have been better if the coalition authority had devoted more resources to trying to estimate civilian casualties? Is it not the case that 92 per cent of the respondents in the survey produced death certificates, and was not the methodology the same as that used by the United States in Kosovo? Whether the survey is wrong by 10, 20, 30, 50 or 60 per cent, is it not clear that this invasion has been a humanitarian disaster?

My Lords, there is no doubt that the survey has been done by a very reputable statistical team at Johns Hopkins University; I have no doubt about their abilities in that sense. What does disturb me a good deal is the extent to which this is a very high estimate compared with others in which the methodology is also regarded as really pretty good. For those reasons it is extremely difficult to arrive at a sensible conclusion. I believe that the Government of Iraq—assisted by the Medico-Legal Institute, which itself is assisted by the International Committee of the Red Cross—and the UN human rights officials who compile a report and are on the ground, still have a very effective operation. I would be loath to try to judge which set of figures is right or to believe that we could do a better job than those who are there.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the methodology of this study was unique in the way in which it was pursued? It is difficult to see how the Government can take the line, “The study was done in a way which is well known, and it was done very well, but we don’t think that it is worth very much”.

My Lords, that is not the view that I have put at all. I said that there are different methods which have arrived at very different figures and that those methods also are legitimate. The way in which data are extrapolated from samples to a general outcome is a matter of deep concern and merits considerable study rather than the denunciation of one method compared with another.

My Lords, does the Minister accept at least the UN estimate that there has recently been a surge to 3,000 Iraqi deaths a month? What is the situation in the British sector—where on Tuesday 10 people were killed in a drive-by shooting in Basra, and on Wednesday the Maysan province police intelligence officer and his bodyguards were blown up? Is that also going down the drain?

My Lords, my impression is that geographical and regional variations suggest that the south is relatively less prone to the numbers of deaths occurring in some other areas, although the figures probably depend on how you define the areas. The figures from the Iraqi Government and the Medico-Legal Institute and the UN human rights figures are 3,000 a month, but the bases on which those figures are compiled also have methodological flaws.

My Lords, I am bound to say that my noble friend’s Answer disturbed me somewhat. Whether this is an accurate estimate or not, we do not know, but, with respect, it passes belief that the Government do not have their own estimate of the number of civilian casualties in Iraq. Therefore, I ask the Minister what that estimate is.

My Lords, there is no such estimate, and the reason for that is absolutely plain. This is a country where people are being killed by insurgents—terrorists—in a widely distributed way, and it is not easy for the United Kingdom to gain access right across the country. We are bound to rely to some extent on research methods employed either more generally or, as I have said we prefer, by the Government of Iraq, who are the one body with authority to deal with the issue right across Iraq.

My Lords, will the Minister accept, as I am sure he will, that, whatever the estimates and the precise figures, this is a continuing tragedy on a massive—indeed, an historic—scale? Has he noted reports that Mr James Baker and his Iraq Survey Group are about to propose to Washington a change of strategy to halt some of the endless bloodshed? Can he assure us that, if this is the new situation, the United Kingdom will be fully involved in any changes of direction and plan that are proposed in the Middle East by Washington, that the Secretary of State is consulting closely with Ms Rice in Washington and that we are not just going to be told afterwards what has been decided when the whole plan has changed?

My Lords, I have absolutely no reason to think that the detail of exchange between ourselves and the United States on these issues will diminish at all. It will continue and there will be a serious and proper exchange between allies. It is unimaginable that there would be fundamental shifts in United States policy on Iraq where we were not consulted or put in a position to deal with matters in detail.