Exclusive: Petraeus’ Sectarian Death Count Methodology

September 21, 2007 4:44 p.m.

In the debate over the surge, there have been a number of questions raised within the government about an important metric for understanding whether the U.S. military’s strategy is succeeding — how Multinational Force-Iraq calculates sectarian violence.

Earlier this month, David Walker of the Government Accountability Office testified that he could not “get comfortable” with General David Petraeus’ methodology for determining sectarianism, considering it too inferential to be reliable. His report, echoing objections from senior intelligence officials, instead tabulated the pace of attacks on civilians and found the surge didn’t appear to have a significant effect on civilian-targeted violence. However, relying on data interpreted through the MNF-I methodology, Petraeus testified that sectarian violence had fallen in Iraq to mid-2006 levels.

The actual methodology MNF-I employs has remained unknown. Until now.

In response to a Freedom of Information Act request I filed two weeks ago, MNF-I has provided TPMmuckraker with its criteria for identifying ethnic and sectarian violence. We’ve added the methodology to our Document Collection, and you can read it here.MNF-I’s methodology identifies a number of factors, necessarily subjective, that help analysts determine whether an attack or a death should be considered sectarian. Ethno-sectarian violence is defined as violence “conducted by one ethnic/religious group against another ethnic/religious group, where the primary motivation for the event is based on ethnic or religious reasons.” MNF-I analysts consider the location of the attack — whether it took place in a mixed area or a homogeneous one — and the type of attack in order to determine ethnic or sectarian violence.

Interestingly, attacks against “same-sect civilians,” U.S. forces, the Iraqi government or Iraqi security forces “are excluded and not defined as sectarian attacks.” So even though Sunni insurgent groups loathe the Shiite-controlled government, insurgent attacks on it aren’t considered sectarian violence.

Additionally, MNF-I calculates that the use of suicide vests, car bombs and IEDs strongly indicate Sunni perpetrators; and reasons that attacks using those methods on “medical centers, market places or religious symbols, mosques, religious gatherings, stores/restaurants, and housing areas” typically indicate sectarian violence, since those entities are primarily used by “one ethnic/sectarian group.” MNF-I acknowledges that in these attacks “there may have been Sunnis killed or injured,” and though it says it excludes “same-sect civilians” from the tally, these are counted as sectarian attacks.

For executions, murders and kidnappings — situations in which sectarianism may be difficult to determine — MNF-I says it uses “host nation” reporting in addition to its own. Many media and non-governmental organizations consider information on casualties released by the Iraqi ministries to be self-serving, misleading or contradictory.

Putting one rumor to rest: there is no consideration given to the placement of an entry wound on a murder suspect’s head in the tabulation of sectarian violence, contrary to a Washington Post report earlier this month.

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