Iraqi Death Toll Under Saddam Hussein

Hundreds of pairs of shoes are set out in labyrinths along the National Mall to symbolize the estimated 100,000 Iraqi civilians who have died since in the war during the 'Eyes Wide Open: The Human Cost of War' exhibition May 12, 2006 in Washington, DC. The exhibition also includes 2433 pairs of boots to symbolize the U.S. military personnel who have died in Iraq since the start of the war in 2003. The Washington Monument is in the background. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Casualty counts in Iraq have generated a war of their own.

The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health published a study that estimated that in the 18 months following the American invasion in 2003, "100,000 more Iraqis died than would have been expected had the invasion not occurred." The study sparked controversy over methodology. It wasn't adding up body counts from bombs and bullets but surveying households about births and deaths that had occurred since 2002, verifying the cause of death through certificates only when possible... which wasn't often.

When the same team updated its study in 2006, the death toll was up to 654,965, with 91.8 percent "caused by violence." Conservative organs like The Wall Street Journal went nuts, charging that, because the study was funded by the liberal activist George Soros, it was not credible. (Where the Journal's editorial page gets its logic is one of the great enigmas of the age).

Saddam Hussein and the Death Toll in Iraq

The well-documented Iraq Body Count site was putting the figure at one-sixth that of the Johns Hopkins study, though it was relying exclusively on verifiable press, government or non-governmental organizations' reports. There comes a point though when casualty figures reach such a level that debating higher or lower numbers becomes an exercise in churlishness. Of course, there's a difference between 700,000 and 100,000 dead. But is that to say that a war that's caused 100,000 dead is somehow, in any possible way, less horrific or more justifiable?

The Iraqi Ministry of Health produced its own casualty count of Iraqis killed as a direct result of violence -- not by survey or estimates but by verifiable deaths and proven causes: At least 87,215 killed since 2005, and more than 110,000 since 2003, or 0.38% of the Iraqi population.

One of the Journal's strange and utterly meaningless comparisons in its 2006 editorial discrediting the Johns Hopkins count was that "fewer Americans died in the Civil War, our bloodiest conflict."

Iraq's Death Count Equivalent in the United States

Here's a more telling comparison. The proportion of Iraqis directly killed in the war would amount to 1.14 million deaths in a country with a population the size of the United States'-- a proportional figure that would exceed any conflict this country has ever known. In fact, it would be almost equivalent to the sum total of all American war casualties since the War of Independence.

But even that approach understates the extent of suffering of the Iraqi population because it only looks at the last six years. What of the death toll under Saddam Hussein?

23 Years of Slaughter Under Saddam Hussein

"In the end," the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning John Burns wrote in The Times a few weeks before the invasion, "if an American-led invasion ousts Mr. Hussein, and especially if an attack is launched without convincing proof that Iraq is still harboring forbidden arms, history may judge that the stronger case was the one that needed no inspectors to confirm: that Saddam Hussein, in his 23 years in power, plunged this country into a bloodbath of medieval proportions, and exported some of that terror to his neighbors.

Burns proceeded to estimate the arithmetic of Saddam's brutality:

  • The largest number of deaths during his reign is attributable to the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988). Iraq claims to have lost 500,000 people during that war.
  • The 1990 occupation of Kuwait and the ensuing Gulf War caused 100,000 deaths, by Iraq's reckoning--probably an exaggeration, but not by much: the 40-day bombardment of Iraq before the three-day ground war, and the massacre of escaping Iraqi troops on the "highway of death" make the estimate more credible than not.
  • "Casualties from Iraq's gulag are harder to estimate," Burns wrote. "Accounts collected by Western human rights groups from Iraqis and defectors have suggested that the number of those who have 'disappeared' into the hands of the secret police, never to be heard from again, could be 200,000."

Add it up, and in three decades, about 900,000 Iraqis have died from violence, or well over 3% of the Iraqi population--the equivalent of more than 9 million people in a nation with a population as large as that of the United States. That's what Iraq will have to recover from over the next decades--not just the death toll of the last six years, but that of the last 30.

Staring at the Abyss

As of this writing, the combined combat and non-combat deaths of American and Coalition soldiers in Iraq, since 2003, total 4,595--a devastating toll from the western perspective, but one that must be multiplied 200 times to begin to understand the extent of the devastation of Iraq's own death toll.

Analyzed that way (since the cause of the violent deaths is not, to the dead and their survivors, nearly as relevant as the fact of the deaths themselves) even the Johns Hopkins figures become less relevant as a point of dispute, since, by focusing only on the last six years, they underestimate the breadth of the carnage. If the Johns Hopkins methodology were applied, the death toll would climb well above 1 million.

One last question bears asking. Assuming that 800,000 Iraqis lost their lives during the Saddam Hussein years, does even that justify killing an additional 100,000, supposedly to be rid of Saddam? "He who does battle with monsters needs to watch out lest he in the process becomes a monster himself," Nietzche wrote in Beyond Good and Evil. "And if you stare too long into the abyss, the abyss will stare right back at you."

Nowhere has that been more true, in this young and morally stunted century, than with America's monstrous battle in Iraq.

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Tristam, Pierre. "Iraqi Death Toll Under Saddam Hussein." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Tristam, Pierre. (2020, August 27). Iraqi Death Toll Under Saddam Hussein. Retrieved from Tristam, Pierre. "Iraqi Death Toll Under Saddam Hussein." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 16, 2021).