The report, prepared by researchers at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, was published in the peer-reviewed British medical journal the Lancet. Its findings diverge sharply from other estimates of Iraqi civilian casualties, and as such stirred a controversy upon its release.
The BBC reports that the chief scientific advisor for the MoD, Sir Roy Anderson, in an email dated October 13, wrote, "The study design is robust and employs methods that are regarded as close to "best practice" in this area, given the difficulties of data collection and verification in the present circumstances in Iraq."
Further email communication just released by the UK's Foreign Office, obtained by the BBC, shows an exchange between two officials over the Lancet figures:
The first official writes, "Are we really sure the report is likely to be right? That is certainly what the brief implies."
To which the second official replies, "We do not accept the figures quoted in the Lancet survey as accurate." The same second official later writes, in the same message, "However, the survey methodology used here cannot be rubbished, it is a tried and tested way of measuring mortality in conflict zones."
The BBC reports that the UK government has released a statement today explaining how it could accept the report's methodology but reject its conclusions. The statement reads, "The methodology has been used in other conflict situations, notably the Democratic Republic of Congo.
"However, the Lancet figures are much higher than statistics from other sources, which only goes to show how estimates can vary enormously according to the method of collection.
"There is considerable debate amongst the scientific community over the accuracy of the figures."
An accurate figure of Iraqi deaths may never be known. Statisticians have pointed out flaws in each method of accounting for Iraqi casualties. Counts based on tallies of death certificates issued or hospital activities undercount Iraqis who died without being processed in morgues, and it relies heavily on the judgement of over-worked hospital staff to make daily reports about the death rate, and make difficult distinctions about whether the cause of death resulted from war, terrorism, or crime.
The Lancet study sampled individuals in randomly chosen areas of the country and extrapolated to the larger population on the basis of that sample. As such, the figures are presented as an estimate, not an accurate count. This method is used by humanitarian and relief organizations in other conflict zones, where accurate counts are impossible, such as in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
However, some, such as Dr Michael Spagat of Royal Holloway London University, criticized the Lancet report, suggesting it may suffer from "mainstreet bias," that is, from choosing a sample that overrepresents Iraqis who live on streets likely to have experienced more violence, and extrapolating from that sample to the Iraqi population as a whole. In the initial controversy over the Lancet figures, George Bush commented, "I don't consider it a credible report." It is unclear on what basis the president was lodging his critique.
Between the competing accounts, the controversy boils down to a dispute over the order of magnitude of Iraqi casualties. Are the figures in the five- or six-digit range?
At the low end, the official Iraqi tally is less than 10% of the deaths estimated in the Lancet report. The Iraq Body Count project's current estimates range between 59,801 and 65,660 civilians killed since March 2003. A UN report released in February concluded that 34,423 civilians perished in 2006 alone.
A pdf file of the Lancet report is available here.