Focus on Attack Numbers In Iraq Is Meaningless

To put it bluntly, focusing on one number like "800 attacks" to measure the level of violence in Iraq is meaningless. That is the figure that has been getting a fair amount of attention in the last couple of days because of Bob Woodward's latest book, "State of Denial," being released next week. Though the book is not yet on sale, some details have come out, including Woodward's own highlighting of this figure: that American troops are being attacked in Iraq at a rate of approximately 800 times per week, or once every 15 minutes.

It is easy to pick out numbers that either exaggerate the level of violence in Iraq or down play its importance. It is also critical to note that no reliable estimates exist of how many Iraqis are killed because many simply disappear, and there is nothing approaching an accurate estimate of wounded.

All attack counts are extremely uncertain because many low-level attacks or individual attacks on individuals are never counted, intimidation and forced moves are not counted, and there is no way to separate murders, kidnappings, and violent crimes from insurgent actions and ethnic and sectarian violence. The kind of pressures that have led to more than 130,000 Iraqis (22,977 families) being displaced since the February 22, 2006 bombing of the Mosque in Samarra are largely unreflected in "attack" counts.

Furthermore, counts have a heavy bias towards insurgent attacks in Baghdad and the three other provinces where Sunni insurgents are more active. Counts of Kurdish-Arab violence are very uncertain -- which has a major impact on the numbers reported in Kirkuk and Mosul. So is intra-Sunni violence in the "Sunni triangle" and intra Shi'ite violence, particularly in Basra.

The Department of Defense does regularly issue numbers that at least have some value in indicating the rough intensity of the fighting. These numbers do differ in definition over time, which makes trend analysis difficult. It is also important to note that the number of attack says nothing about the intensity of attacks or the casualties that result. Some incidents are far more important than others.

Given all these caveats -- which raise serious questions about the real world meaning of any of the "punchline" figures used in Department of Defense reporting, MNF-I reporting, political debates, and various books -- the most recent data in the latest Department of Defense quarterly report (August 31, 2006) show that:

--There has been a massive increase in the Sunni versus Shi'ite sectarian violence that could trigger an all-out civil war, divide the country, and effectively force the US to withdraw. "Sectarian incidents" rose from less than 200 per month during May 2005 to January 2006, to some 1,200 in February, and have averaged around 2,200 per month ever since. (p. 35). Given the fact that such totals seriously undercount total ethnic and sectarian violence, this more than tenfold increase is a serious warning of the possibility of civil war.

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