NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Hot Air Estimates of Collateral Damage

February 26, 2003

How many Iraqi civilians will die in Gulf War II? Estimates depend on assumptions -- especially about U.S. strategy, tactics, weapons and targets. Experts say some recent estimates are completely useless.

  • The most widely circulated estimate of up to 500,000 civilian casualties comes from a confidential report by a United Nations humanitarian-aid specialist.
  • Another much-cited public study, by the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, cites a figure of up to 100,000.

Both the U.N. and physicians' studies assume that U.S. and allied bombing will severely damage Iraq's electrical power plants, generators and distribution networks, which will have a grave effect on the country's electrified water and sanitation systems.

However, the United States has no intention of attacking power plants, railways or bridges, since the basic aims of this war are very different from 1991's Operation Desert Storm.

Even if these reports' assumptions were pertinent, their methodology is loose:

  • The U.N. report does not lay out the range of estimates, making the calculations inherently suspect.
  • The International Physicians' report lays out wide ranges -- In Baghdad, for example, civilian deaths of 2,000 ti 50,000 and wounded of 6,000 to 200,000.
  • But these numbers aren't estimates; the report cites their source as an article by Brookings Institution analyst Michael O'Hanlon in Slate that made the point that it's nearly impossible to predict civilian casualties.

In the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq's infrastructure was bombarded heavily and repeatedly. As a result, according to several independent estimates, about 3,500 Iraqi civilians were killed. Aanother 110,000 died from the after-effects on the country's health and sanitation system.

Source: Fred Kaplan, "How Many Dead Iraqis?" War Stories,, February 25, 2003.


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