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How High Is the Murder Rate in Baghdad?

Despite Saddam Hussein's capture this weekend, many are still pessimistic about controlling the levels of violence in Iraq.

Yet, this pessimism largely depends on the numbers one relies on. Take what has become a surprisingly controversial number: Baghdad's murder rate (search). Some assert that in October Baghdad had one of the highest murder rates in the world, while others point to numbers that it was below even the U.S.'s own murder rate. The political overtones are obvious, not just in terms of the Bush administration's successes but as people try to explain why the numbers are as high or as low as they are.

This June, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld started the ruckus when he said: “You've got to remember that if Washington, D.C., were the size of Baghdad, we would be having something like 215 murders a month.” Some were bothered simply because this indicated that Iraq was being handled well. Others were upset that a country where civilians were able to freely own machine guns could have a lower murder rate than our own nation’s capital where even handguns are banned. The claim did not sit well with those pushing to renew the assault weapons ban (search) in our own country.

The apparently low crime rate was all the more surprising because Saddam had let all of Iraq’s criminals out of jail before his government was removed. In addition, Iraq is still in turmoil: Iraqi police are new to their jobs and terrorist attacks stretch them thin.

On the other side, a New York Times op-ed by two Brookings Institution (search) researchers, Adriana Lins de Albuquerque and Michael O’Hanlon, claims that Baghdad’s murder rate is among the highest in the world. Supposedly Baghdad’s annualized murder rate from April to October this year ranged from an incredible 100 to 185 per 100,000 people -- a number, they pointed out, that averaged several times greater than the rate in Washington, D.C.

Even an op-ed in the U.S. edition of the Wall Street Journal by retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey says that Rumsfeld is in “denial” when he claims the “crime levels” are comparable in the two cities. An AP story points to bodies in the morgue and claims, "Baghdad is in the midst of an unprecedented crime wave."

Yet, according to the Wall Street Journal Europe, the U.S. Army 1st Division in Baghdad reports that the numbers fell continually from a high of 19.5 per 100,000 in July to only 5 per 100,000 in October. The October rate is actually lower than the 5.6 U.S. murder rate in 2002. By contrast, the New York Times’ latest numbers for October claim to show a murder rate of 140 per 100,000 -- a difference of 28-fold!

Albuquerque and O’Hanlon not only imply that murders are rampant, but generally rising. By contrast, the Wall Street Journal Europe shows crime is under control and falling. If the Wall Street Journal Europe proves correct, Rumsfeld is vindicated. The murder rate would then never be even half as high as that for Washington, D.C. If Albuquerque and O’Hanlon are right, Rumsfeld has some serious explaining to do.

So whom should we believe? The New York Times or the Wall Street Journal Europe?

I contacted the authors of both pieces. Albuquerque and O’Hanlon, who wrote the Times piece, provided two sources for their murder rate numbers: An article by Neil MacFarquhar in the New York Times (Sept. 16, 2003) and a piece by Lara Marlowe in the Irish Times (Oct. 11, 2003). Yet, both references clearly stated that much more than murder was included in the reports that they used from the Baghdad morgue. MacFarquhar notes that these deaths also included “automobile accidents” and cases where people “were shot dead by American soldiers,” cases that clearly did not involve murders. The Irish Times piece mentions that “up to a quarter of fatal shootings [in the morgue] are caused by U.S. troops.”

For some perspective, in D.C., murders account for fewer than 5 percent of all deaths. Even counting only the types of deaths explicitly mentioned in the stories citing the Baghdad morgue (accidental deaths, murders, suicides) and assuming that soldiers were engaged in the same type of fighting in D.C. as they are in Iraq, murders in D.C. would account for just a third of deaths. (The respective numbers for the U.S. as a whole are even lower: a half of one percent and 11 percent.) Obviously, counting these other deaths as “murders” in D.C. would imply that murders were three to 20 times more common than they actually were.

The Wall Street Journal Europe instead relied on the U.S. Army 1st Division stationed in Baghdad. A public affairs officer with that division, Jason Beck, confirmed for me that a large part of the Iraqi legal system is being overseen by the U.S. JAG officers, and they are using the same standards for murder rates as used in the U.S. and separating out murders from other deaths.

Numbers mean a lot. Perceptions that conditions in Iraq are deteriorating constantly gets play in evaluating whether President Bush deserves re-election. When a publication of record such as the New York Times gets Baghdad’s October murder rates wrong by up to a factor of 28 to 1 and no correction is issued, the consequences are significant. To equate accidental deaths and U.S. soldiers killing terrorists with murders is irresponsible.

John R. Lott, Jr., a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of "The Bias Against Guns" (Regnery 2003).