Violence in Iraq: Some Comparisons

More American troops have now been deployed to Baghdad to help suppress the violence there, which is generally seen as unacceptably high. Today’s news includes the usual body count, mostly from Baghdad. In July, there were around 1,500 violent deaths in Baghdad and 3,500 nationwide. The latter number is consistent with the often-heard statement that around 100 people a day are murdered in Iraq, most in sectarian violence.

Out of curiosity, I did a little research to get some perspective on these numbers. Based on a population of 6,000,000, an annualized murder rate of 1,500 per month in Baghdad yields 300 per 100,000 population, the usual measure by which murder rates are expressed. This is a high number of course, since it assumes that the record level of violence in July is sustained for 12 months.

For purposes of comparison, I looked up historic murder rates for some American cities. Washington, D.C. has historically had one of the highest murder rates among American cities. It peaked at 80 per 100,000 in 1991. So in July, Baghdad experienced a murder rate close to four times what we had in the nation’s capital fifteen years ago. At 140 per 100,000, Iraq’s murder rate in July is a little under twice Washington, D.C.’s 1991 rate. Another interesting comparison: Baghdad’s July rate is a little lower than the 350 per 100,000 murder rate at which Medellin, Colombia peaked, also in 1991.

Some say that what is going on in Iraq is a civil war between Sunni and Shia Muslims. So I compared current violent death totals in Iraq with two civil wars that took place in countries that had about the same population that Iraq has now–the American and Spanish Civil Wars.

These comparisons are crude, of course, for many reasons. The most obvious is that in Spain and the U.S., most casualties involved armies in the field, not civilians. In the American Civil War, in fact, civilian casualties were de minimis. In Iraq, the contending parties, while heavily armed and in some instances organized into militias, do not have armies in the field. This is one reason why I don’t call what is going on there a civil war. But the comparisons are interesting nevertheless.

The American Civil War lasted for around four years, and approximately 600,000 soldiers died, roughly 150,000 per year. That compares with a current rate in Iraq of 36,500 (at 100 per day). The Spanish Civil War went on for approximately 33 months, and is generally believed to have caused approximately 350,000 deaths of soldiers and civilians. That’s about 127,000 per year.

Many similar comparisons could be drawn, and one could argue endlessly about such statistics. But I think that in broad terms, these comparisons confirm what I would intuitively judge about the current situation in Iraq: the violent death rate there is significantly higher than a “normal” murder rate, even a relatively high one such as Washington, D.C.’s. At the same time, it is a fraction (perhaps one-quarter) of the death rates that have typified actual civil wars. Thus, Iraq is currently suspended in a kind of middle ground; if American and Iraqi troops succeed in imposing relative calm on Baghdad, the violent death rate will likely recede to a high but “normal” level. On the other hand, if the rate of violence continues to climb as it has over the last several months, it conceivably could reach a level that would represent a real civil war.

For another set of comparisons relating to violence in Iraq, see this post.


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