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Hamit Dardagan on Iraq Body Count (IBC)

Professor Michael Spagat interviews Hamit Dardagan, co-founder of Iraq Body Count on the roots, purpose and accomplishments of the project.
I’m here with Hamit Dardagan of Iraq Body Count today. So Hamit, you’re one of the co-founders of Iraq Body Count, an organisation that I’ve worked closely with over the years. So can you tell me, what were your motivations in setting up this project in the first place? Well, I speak for myself, not the entire team. We were quite big at the beginning– maybe about 20 volunteers. But to me the main motivation was to recognise the humanity of the Iraqi civilians who were bound to be killed in any kind of invasion, as was being prepared. It looked very much like it was going to happen, so we needed to be ready in advance.
So we set up in January, rather than waiting for March. And so another– This was in 2003. You set up in– 2000 and– yes. In fact, maybe even December 2002. And one of the motivations was that we felt it could be done. So because we knew we could be done, therefore we felt it should be done. And there was absolutely no sign that any official effort was going to be made to do this. We knew from other wars– even the most recent previous one in Afghanistan– that it would probably be left up to NGOs and volunteers to do this kind of work. So we got ready for it early on.
Can you be precise about exactly what it is that you record? OK. So we try to record civilian deaths, in particular, in as much detail as possible. And we also don’t just produce numbers– even though we refer to it as a count, because that’s the bare minimum one can do. But really it’s about recording as much detail about the circumstances and so on, as is available in the public record. So that begins with having the time, the location, and, at a very bare minimum, how many were killed. But then we also focus on the kinds of weapons that were used. And then take it further to the demographics of the victims. Who were the perpetrators, if known.
And then the demographics might include things like gender, age, profession, parental and marital status– trying to build up a complete a picture as we can of each individual death– which I think is just, you know, in a sense, normal. You don’t really want to reduce people to just numbers. You want to know that if there is a number, that that number resolves to individuals. So we know, for example, of the people who’ve been counted for and killed in the World Trade Centre– that you can actually go into those numbers and actually find the people behind those numbers with bios, pictures, tributes, and testimonies from their relatives, and so on.
And we want to do as much of that as possible for Iraqi deaths because, you know, they are no less human than anyone else. I mentioned earlier that we record the perpetrator where we can. But knowing the perpetrator is not a condition of us doing the recording. So many of the cases, we don’t know who the perpetrator is at. We just record all the deaths. So when you speak about knowing the perpetrator, this doesn’t mean knowing, say, the name of the individual who pulled the trigger, but what you’re talking about is knowing the organisation from which– Yes– or the parties to conflict that they probably belong to.
And we know that media reports might be quite accurate on the time of day when a bomb exploded, where it exploded, how many people were taken to hospital. They get information from medics. They get information from police, and so on– early responders, et cetera. And that information could all be quite accurate. It was– let’s say, it was a car bomb– a booby trapped car bomb or something like that. And all that stuff can be quite accurate. Then, there’s information which is kind of assumed, such as, that it was a particular part of the conflict that did it.
We’ve tended to say, there’s no way the journalists who are writing this can actually know for a fact that it was a particular group, even when a group sometimes takes credit for something, you don’t know that they are just trying to piggyback on to some supposed victory over the other. So what we do is we tend to look at who was targeted. So if it was a government facility that was targeted, or a government institution, or the police, or officials, then we say, these are anti-government forces. And what do you think have been some of the more important insights that have come out of the work?
Sort of on of these sort of unexpected insights– the things that we were not specifically looking for, but that this sort of detailed data collection and the use of a database to formalise and structure this information has allowed us to see– were patterns that were not that clear from the beginning, which have led to some research purpose, including ones that you’ve worked on. See which kinds of demographics are particularly vulnerable to which kinds of weapons. I mean, there is a case, for example, showing that children are more likely to die of wounds sustained– in they’re more likely to be killed rather than just to be wounded by bombs.
You might say, oh, yeah, kind of makes sense– smaller bodies, closer to the ground. You might sort of surmise that, but to actually have data showing that, is a very different thing. And we’ve been able to show that. We’ve been able to show that, yes, in fact, it is generally women and children– including, one presumes, of course, civilian men, as well– but showing that women and children tend to be– when there are air strikes that cause civilian casualties– that they tend to include more women and children, generally speaking, shows that these strikes are often much more indiscriminate than is often told.
And having this stuff as data showing the vulnerability of particular demographics and populations is one important bit of data that’s– I think you could say– I mean, painting with a very broad brush on this– that for things like airstrikes, that the demographics of the people killed in them are roughly reflective of their demographics in the population. Yes. So about half female. Whereas, with gun shot killings, it’s much more overwhelmingly adult males. Yes. Yes. Thank you very much for a very interesting interview. Thank you.

In this video, I interview Hamit Dardagan, Co-founder of Iraq Body Count (IBC), a project which has been documenting violent deaths of civilians in the Iraq war which began in March of 2003.

The IBC database is organized primarily as a list of violent events in which at least one civilian was killed. Scroll through the IBC database you see entries, often covering multiple deaths, designated as “suicide attacks”, “air strikes”, “gunfire”, etc.. This event-based organizing system is rather different from the victim-based systems of, for example, the Marathon Stone and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

In principle, it is possible for a casualty recording project to provide its information both victim-by-victim and event-by-event. Indeed, IBC does also provide victim-based information although this section of the database is much less comprehensive than the event-based section. The amount of work necessary to provide either type of information is staggering and should not be underestimated.


Consider the following questions on the data collection practices of Iraq Body Count:

  1. What pieces of information does IBC try to collect about each violent event it enters into its database?
  2. What are the uses of these different pieces of information? If you prefer you could consider this question the other way around, i.e, could some of the information IBC is collecting be considered extraneous?

Upon my request Hamit provided the following bio:

Hamit Dardagan is the Co-Director of Every Casualty Worldwide, a UK-registered charity which works to that all casualties of armed violence are promptly recorded, correctly identified and publicly acknowledged, and which has produced the first-ever set of international, widely-endorsed standards for this endeavour.

In late 2002 he co-founded the Iraq Body Count project (, which systematically records violent deaths resulting from the country’s US/UK-led 2003 invasion and its aftermath. He has written or co-written a number of analytical papers on this, including for The New England Journal of Medicine, PLoS Medicine, and The Lancet. He has also written more general articles outlining the case for the detailed recording of all casualties in all conflicts, for publications as diverse as The British Medical Journal, The Guardian, and The British Army Review, and has also made numerous TV and radio appearances on these subjects.

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