Estimates vary among organizations that have tried to count civilian dead, according to a review last year by the Congressional Research Service. The Iraqi Ministry of Human Rights reported that 85,694 Iraqi civilians died from insurgent attacks from 2004 through 2008. The Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, estimated that more than 111,000 Iraqis died from war-related incidents from 2003 through 2010.
So estimates vary between about 85,000 and 111,000, right? Wrong. As the Congressional Research Service report (10/7/10) that USA Today cites makes clear, the highest estimate from a credible source is over 1 million–that's the number from ORB (9/07), a respected British polling firm. That number is in line with the Johns Hopkins researchers (Lancet, 10/11/06) whose epidemiological survey came up with a likely total of 600,000 violent deaths for an earlier phase of the war.
Different groups, using different approaches to the complicated task of estimating loss of life in a war zone, have come up with a broad range of numbers for the death toll in Iraq. USA Today, however, seems to be using a simple guideline for whether to include such numbers in its reporting: Do they make the U.S. look good?
That's the only reportorial approach that could justify the story's inclusion of this bit of self-serving, evidence-free handwaving:
Despite the imprecision, [Pentagon spokesperson Col. Dave] Lapan said the military believes insurgents killed far more civilians than U.S. and allied forces have in Iraq. However, the military is unable to quantify the claim, he said.