. . . . But Tony Blair (and George W. Bush) chose to lie and said, "The study isn't accurate."
The Guardian reports:
Chief government advisers accepted as "robust" research that put the death toll from the Iraq war 10 times higher than any previous estimate, new documents have revealed.
The study, by the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, prompted worldwide alarm when it was published in the Lancet medical journal in October last year.
It estimated that 655,000 Iraqis had died due to the violence in the country. It has now emerged chief advisers warned ministers not to "rubbish" the report.
At the time, both the British and US governments were quick to dismiss the peer reviewed study. The Foreign Office said it was based on a "fairly small sample ...extrapolated across the country". Iraqi government data was more likely to be accurate, it added.
The US was more blunt. President George Bush said: "I don't consider it a credible report."
However, according to papers obtained by the BBC World Service's Newshour programme under the Freedom of Information Act, senior officials warned the methods used in the survey were "robust" and "close to best practice".
The survey came up with its findings by comparing mortality rates before and after the invasion. Researchers surveyed 47 randomly-chosen areas across 16 provinces in Iraq, speaking to nearly 1,850 families, comprising more than 12,800 people.
One of the documents obtained by the BBC is a memo by the Ministry of Defence's chief scientific adviser, Sir Roy Anderson, dated October 13 2006, two days after the report was published.
"The study design is robust and employs methods that are regarded as close to 'best practice' in this area, given the difficulties of data collection and verification in the present circumstances in Iraq," he says.
Another item is an exchange of emails between officials in which one asks: "Are we really sure the report [in the Lancet] is likely to be right? That is certainly what the brief implies."
Another replies: "We do not accept the figures quoted in the Lancet survey as accurate." Later in the same email, the same official writes: "However, the survey methodology used here cannot be rubbished, it is a tried and tested way of measuring mortality in conflict zones."
In a statement issued to Newshour, the government said: "The methodology has been used in other conflict situations, notably the Democratic Republic of Congo.
"However, the Lancet figures are much higher than statistics from other sources, which only goes to show how estimates can vary enormously according to the method of collection.
"There is considerable debate amongst the scientific community over the accuracy of the figures."
Richard Horton, Lancet's editor, comments in The Guardian:
Our collective failure has been to take our political leaders at their word. This week, the BBC reported that the government's own scientists advised ministers that the Johns Hopkins study on Iraq civilian mortality was accurate and reliable. This paper was published in the Lancet last October. It estimated that 650,000 Iraqi civilians had died since the American- and British-led invasion in March 2003.
Immediately after publication, the prime minister's official spokesman said that The Lancet's study "was not one we believe to be anywhere near accurate". The foreign secretary, Margaret Beckett, said that the Lancet figures were "extrapolated" and a "leap". President Bush said: "I don't consider it a credible report".
Scientists at the UK's Department for International Development thought differently. They concluded that the study's methods were "tried and tested". Indeed, the Hopkins approach would likely lead to an "underestimation of mortality".
The Ministry of Defence's chief scientific advisor said the research was "robust", close to "best practice", and "balanced". He recommended "caution in publicly criticising the study".
When these recommendations went to the prime minister's advisers, they were horrified. One person briefing Tony Blair wrote: "are we really sure that the report is likely to be right? That is certainly what the brief implies?" A Foreign Office official was forced to conclude that the government "should not be rubbishing The Lancet".
The prime minister's adviser finally gave in. He wrote: "the survey methodology used here cannot be rubbished, it is a tried and tested way of measuring mortality in conflict zones".
How would the government respond?
Would it welcome the Hopkins study as an important contribution to understanding the military threat to Iraqi civilians? Would it ask for urgent independent verification? Would it invite the Iraqi government to upgrade civilian security?
Of course, our government did none of these things. Tony Blair was advised to say: "the overriding message is that there are no accurate or reliable figures of deaths in Iraq".
His official spokesman went further and rejected the Hopkins report entirely. It was a shameful and cowardly dissembling by a Labour - yes, by a Labour - prime minister.
Indeed, it was even contrary to the Americans' own Iraq Study Group report, which concluded last year that "there is significant underreporting of the violence in Iraq".
This Labour government, which includes Gordon Brown as much as it does Tony Blair, is party to a war crime of monstrous proportions. Yet our political consensus prevents any judicial or civil society response. Britain is paralysed by its own indifference.
At a time when we are celebrating our enlightened abolition of slavery 200 years ago, we are continuing to commit one of the worst international abuses of human rights of the past half-century. It is inexplicable how we allowed this to happen. It is inexplicable why we are not demanding this government's mass resignation.
Two hundred years from now, the Iraq war will be mourned as the moment when Britain violated its delicate democratic constitution and joined the ranks of nations that use extreme pre-emptive killing as a tactic of foreign policy. Some anniversary that will be.