The tragedy of innocent people being killed in sectarian violence and as a direct result of the presence of the coalition forces in Iraq is undeniable. What is arguable however is the actual number of civilians who have died as a result of the invasion.

A new report by the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq puts the number of civilian casualties for 2006 at 34,452, a figure nearly three times higher than that released by the Iraqi government.

The epidemiologists from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Al Mustansiriya University in Baghdad who released their own set of figures on Iraqi deaths last October will also disagree. They wrote: 

As many as 654,965 more Iraqis may have died since hostilities began in Iraq in March 2003 than would have been expected under pre-war conditions…

The deaths from all causes—violent and non-violent—are over and above the estimated 143,000 deaths per year that occurred from all causes prior to the March 2003 invasion.

Those numbers led to outrage. The anti-war lobby claimed they were evidence the war was a misadventure and a continuing human tragedy. The pro-war lobby claimed the report’s methodology was flawed, but there was one thing everyone agreed on – the final number was shockingly high.

For his part, President Bush was prepared to acknowledge around 30,000 civilian deaths up to that point, but his reasons for preferring a conservative estimate are obvious. This latest UN report certainly debunks his position, suggesting over 30,000 Iraqis died last year alone, while it also forces a reassessment of the Johns Hopkins study.

Whatever the actual number is, the discrepancy in these figures supports the view, held almost universally among those who compile such numbers, that compiling an accurate figure on civilian deaths is close to impossible. Given those difficulties, you have to wonder if we’ll ever have a reliable idea of the total civilian cost of the Iraq war.