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Disputed MIT Study Says 600,000 Iraqi Civilians Killed

By Brian MacQuarrie

President Bush and defense officials Wednesday assailed an MIT-funded survey that estimated about 600,000 Iraqis have died in war-related violence since the US invasion in 2003, a figure many times greater than the number used by American officials.

However, researchers from Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health, which conducted the study in conjunction with teams of Iraqi physicians, defended the methodology as the best yet in determining the war’s total death toll.

“I don’t consider it a credible report,” Bush said at a White House news conference. The study’s methodology, he added, “is pretty well discredited.” In December, the president said he believed that the number of Iraqis who have died since the war began was “30,000, more or less.”

Several specialists countered that the methodology used by the researchers was appropriate for such a study.

The survey, to be published Thursday in the British medical journal Lancet, reached its estimate based on 12,801 interviews in May and June at 1,849 households in 47 randomly selected “clusters” of homes throughout Iraq.

“Our total estimate is much higher than other mortality estimates because we used a population-based, active method for collecting mortality information rather than passive methods that depend on counting bodies or tabulated media reports of violent deaths,” said Johns Hopkins researcher Gilbert Burnham, one of the principal authors of the study.

The estimate exceeds what other groups have found, including Iraq Body Count, a London-based group that opposes the war and compiles its toll from English-language media reports and official statements. The group estimates that between 43,491 and 48,283 people had died as of Sept. 26. Hamit Dardagan, a spokesman for Iraq Body Count, said the group would not comment on this new study “until we have read and digested the full report.”

If accurate, the latest estimated death toll of 601,027 would represent 2.5 percent of Iraq’s population. The annual death rate of 13.2 per 1,000 since the invasion, according to the study, is more than twice the figure of 5.5 per 1,000 before the war began.

The most common cause of violent death was gunfire, at 56 percent, the study indicated. Airstrikes, car bombs, and other explosions each accounted for 13 to 14 percent of the deaths.

The survey reported that coalition forces were responsible for 31 percent of the deaths, although that proportion has dropped in 2006.

The authors of the study, titled “The Human Cost of the War in Iraq,” said the research carries a 95 percent “confidence index” that the range of violence-related casualties is between 426,369 and 793,663.

The latest study received $90,000 from the Center for International Studies at MIT. John Tirman, the center’s chief, said he had become concerned that the issue of casualties was not receiving proper attention.

Tirman responded to the president’s criticism by saying, “Their best shot at bringing it down was to call the method not credible, when in fact this is the only scientific account of the fatalities in the Iraq war.”

Paul Bolton, a researcher at the Boston University School of Public Health who has conducted surveys throughout the world, also said the methodology appears sound. “The president mainly relies on figures that come from passive surveillance, where you have institutions like hospitals that collect data as bodies are brought to them,” Bolton said. “When the president says these studies are different, they are different. But the passive method is the flawed one.”

Army General George Casey, the commander of ground forces in Iraq, discounted the estimate. The survey’s death toll, he said, “seems way, way beyond any number that I have seen. I’ve not seen a number higher than 50,000. And so I don’t give that much credibility at all.”

Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told Reuters, “The report is unbelievable. These numbers are exaggerated.”

However, Barbara Bodine, a former US ambassador to Yemen who is a visiting scholar at the Center for International Studies, said the science is sound and the conclusions deserve prompt, serious attention.

“I think we do ourselves and the Iraqis a disservice by dismissing these numbers out of hand, because they are deeply disturbing,” said Bodine, who served as Coordinator for Reconstruction in Baghdad and the central provinces in 2003. “While we have become almost numb to the daily reports of Iraqi civilian casualties, this survey reminds us that there is an Iraq and that the human infrastructure is being possibly irreparably damaged.”

Bryan Bender of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Material from wire services was also used.