How Violent Is Iraq?

I’ve written previously on the level of violence in Iraq, comparing it to murder rates in other times and places and to death rates that have been experienced in actual civil wars. See here and here, for example. My impression has been that violence in Iraq has skyrocketed since July, when I found that the murder rate in Iraq was 140 per 100,000 (the usual way in which murder rates are expressed). I was surprised, therefore, to learn this morning that rate of violence has increased only slightly:

The United Nations said Wednesday that 3,709 Iraqi civilians were killed in October, the highest monthly toll since the March 2003 U.S. invasion and another sign of the severity of Iraq’s sectarian bloodbath.

That compares to an estimated 3,500 killed in July. If 3,709 people were murdered in October, that translates to a rate of 171 per 100,000. That is a high rate of violent death. But, for purposes of comparison, the murder rate in Washington, D.C. in 1991 was 80 per 100,000. So the rate of violence in Iraq today is just over double the rate in the District during the first Bush administration. I don’t recall anyone describing conditions in Washington in the early 90s as a “bloodbath.”
I wrote in June that based on the data at that time, the murder rate in Iraq outside of Baghdad is about the same as American cities like Chicago, Philadelphia and Milwaukee. With the current numbers, it looks like that would still be true.
A consensus seems to have developed that Iraq is a disaster because of out-of-control sectarian violence. That consensus is driving proposals to change our policy in Iraq, perhaps in the direction of a pull-out that could lead to truly cataclysmic violence. So I think it makes sense to step back and get a more realistic picture of the level of what is happening in Iraq: violent? Yes. A disaster comparable to a civil war? No.


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