How many Iraqis have died in the violence since the United States walked into the oil-rich nation in March 2003 to 'liberate' it?
The toll has always been a matter of speculation, informed conjecture and such, and no official figure has ever been available. The American military has held that it does not track Iraqi deaths in the violence, only its own. And in 2006, the Iraqi health minister asserted that 100 bodies arrive in morgues everyday, shocking people. Another study painted a grimmer picture when it pitched the Iraqi deaths at 600,000.
Finally, however, there are official figures available. A large national household survey by the World Health Organisation and the Iraqi government has estimated that 151,000 Iraqis have been killed in the violence between March 2003 and June 2006.
The findings are based on information collected during a wider survey of family health in Iraq, and designed to provide a basis for the Iraqi government to develop and update health policies and plan services, the WHO said in a press release.
The fresh estimate is based on interviews in 9345 households in nearly 1000 neighbourhoods and villages across Iraq. Iraq's ministry of health workers fanned out across the country's 18 provinces in late 2006 and early 2007 for the sampling.
However, despite the large numbers, researchers say the inherent uncertainty in such estimates actually puts the toll somewhere between 104,000 and 223,000.
'Assessment of the death toll in conflict situations is extremely difficult and household survey results have to be interpreted with caution,' study co-author Mohamed Ali, a WHO statistician who provided technical assistance for the survey, was quoted in a press release. 'However, in the absence of comprehensive death registration and hospital reporting, household surveys are the best we can do.'
The release said violence became a leading cause of death for Iraqi adults after March 2003 and the main cause for men aged 15-59 years. It indicated that on average 128 Iraqis per day died of violent causes in the first year following the invasion and that the average daily violent death toll was 115 in the second year and 126 in the third year. More than half of the violent deaths occurred in Baghdad.
'Our survey estimate is three times higher than the death toll detected through careful screening of media reports by the Iraq Body Count project and about four times lower than a smaller-scale household survey conducted earlier in 2006,' Naeema Al Gasseer, the WHO Representative to Iraq, added.
The UN is learnt to have paid more than $1.6 million for the survey. Its findings can still be disputed, since many Iraqis have fled their neighbourhood many parts of the country remain dangerous. Even the surveyors were not spared: one of them was killed during the project and another, later. More than 100 neighbourhoods in Baghad and Anbar could not be accessed because of the violence.