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U.S. News
Estimates of deaths in first war still in dispute

Sunday, February 16, 2003

By Jack Kelly, Post-Gazette National Security Writer

With a second Persian Gulf War drawing near, Beth Daponte's telephone has been ringing off the hook with journalists from around the country asking about her estimates of Iraqi casualties in the first one.

Beth Daponte's casualty estimates on the Gulf War stirred controversy. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)


Casualty estimate data

Now a research professor at Carnegie Mellon University, Daponte was a 29-year-old demographer at the Commerce Department in 1992, responsible for keeping track of developments in the Middle East, when she estimated that 158,000 Iraqis -- 86,194 men, 39,612 women and 32,195 children -- had perished in the war and its aftermath.

The U.S. suffered 148 combat deaths and 145 non-battle deaths during the Gulf War and the buildup to it.

Daponte's original estimate was leaked and made public at a press conference by William Arkin of Greenpeace, the activist environmental organization. The Pentagon said it wasn't possible to estimate Iraqi civilian casualties, and was unhappy that anyone else in the government attempted to do so.

Daponte's boss quickly informed her in writing that she would be dismissed for releasing "false information." The Commerce Department backed off after the American Civil Liberties Union offered to defend Daponte's free-speech rights and supplied her with attorneys. But she was given no more significant work to do, and left a few months later for Carnegie Mellon.

Even though she doesn't enjoy reliving it, the controversy has worked out well for Daponte. Thanks to the publicity it generated, she is now considered the nation's leading authority on non-battle deaths in Iraq. At Carnegie Mellon, Daponte studies the demographic effects of food assistance programs, and the undercount of minorities in the last U.S. census.

In a subsequent 1993 study funded by Greenpeace, Daponte updated and publicly presented her analysis of the Gulf War, raising the total Iraqi death count to 205,000. She estimated that 56,000 Iraqi soldiers and 3,500 civilians were killed during the war, and that another 35,000 died as Saddam Hussein crushed Kurdish and Shiite rebellions that rose up after the United States stopped fighting. The largest number of deaths -- 111,000 -- Daponte attributed to "postwar adverse health effects."

Most of Daponte's estimates of Iraqi casualties are higher than those of other researchers. But National Defense University Prof. Judith Yaphe, a former CIA analyst, thinks DaPonte underestimated the number killed in the Kurdish and Shiite rebellions. Yaphe thinks at least 60,000 died in those uprisings, perhaps as many as 80,000 to 100,000.

Daponte took her figure for combat deaths during the war from Arkin, a former Army intelligence officer. His estimate was in line with an early Defense Intelligence Agency estimate of 50,000 to 100,000 Iraqi battlefield deaths, but substantially higher than the current consensus among military experts of 10,000 to 20,000 Iraqi soldiers and 1,000 to 2,000 civilians killed.

Estimates by experts at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, and by an air power survey headed by Johns Hopkins University Prof. Eliot Cohen put the number of Iraqi soldiers killed at 20,000 to 25,000, and the number of civilian deaths at 1,000 to 3,000. The Iraqi government claims 2,278 civilians were killed during the war.

This puts Daponte's 1993 estimate at about double the current consensus on battlefield deaths, but close to the consensus range for civilian deaths.

Two scholars think actual Iraqi battlefield deaths were much lower. In a 1993 paper, former DIA analyst John Heidenrich estimated that only about 1,500 Iraqi soldiers, and fewer than 1,000 civilians were killed during the war. Working independently, John Mueller, a political science professor at Ohio State University, came to a similar conclusion.

Heidenrich and Mueller based their conclusions on the low number of Iraqi bodies found by American forces (577), the low number of wounded Iraqis captured by Allied forces (2,000), and extrapolation from the maximum crew size of Iraqi tanks and armored personnel carriers destroyed during the war.

DaPonte estimated indirect casualties by calculating the difference between the number of "expected" deaths among various demographic groups in Iraq, and actual mortality rates. For instance, had there been no war, the infant mortality rate for Iraq for 1992 would have been about 37 deaths per 1,000 live births. The actual rate, according to a survey conducted by the International Study Team of Harvard University, was 93.

Many of the journalists who have called her in recent weeks have asked Daponte to estimate how many Iraqis would likely die in a second Gulf War. She has refused.

"That would be guesswork, not science," DaPonte said.


Jack Kelly can be reached at jkelly@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1476.

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