Map Room

The Iraq War Never Ended

Mapping nearly 12 years of violence in 42 seconds shows that the war America started still rages on.

According to the latest report by the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq, a total of 7,818 civilians and 1,050 security forces died in violent attacks across Iraq in 2013 -- making last year the bloodiest in Iraq since 2008. As the Syrian Civil War continues into its third year and militants, including al Qaeda-affiliate the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams, take advantage of Iraq's porous border, conflict has escalated again. Thousands are dying in a renewed wave of car bombs, suicide attacks, assassinations, and firefights.

Violence in Iraq has swelled and ebbed since the U.S. invasion in 2003.  The civilian toll of the war averaged around 13,000 deaths each year from 2003 through 2005, but as the country was convulsed by insurgency and civil war, casualties skyrocketed to nearly 30,000 civilian deaths in 2006, according to Iraq Body Count, a British-based NGO that runs an online database of civilian deaths. Those numbers tapered off as the U.S. military and Iraqi government co-opted insurgents during the Anbar Awakening and surged forces to restive areas, and in 2010 the figure reached a low of 4,110 civilian deaths. From 2010 through 2012, even after the withdrawal of U.S. forces in Dec. 2011, civilian casualties hovered around 4,000 deaths each year. But, with a sharp spike in attacks since Spring 2013, that lull has ended. Iraq Body Count noted in its 2013 end-of-year review that "while 1,900 civilians were killed between October 2012 and March 2013, 6,300 were killed between April and October 2013."

This map tracks the toll of war and terrorism on Iraq's civilians over the last decade. It visualizes approximately 35,000 incidents from January 2003 to September 2013, drawing on data from the incidents dataset released by the Iraq Body Count. The dataset does not include any military or insurgent casualties. Every red flare represents a violent incident resulting in the death of one or more people. The brighter a flare is, the more incidents occurred in that specific time and place.

The map does not presume to be an exhaustive account of violent incidents in Iraq, though Iraq Body Count stresses that their figures "are not 'estimates' but a record of actual, documented violent deaths" drawn from crosschecked media reports integrated with the information from hospitals, morgues, NGOs, and other official reports. The civilian toll of the war in Iraq over the last decade is still hotly contested, and Iraq Body Count is just one of several tallies. What the map does illustrate is the paroxysm of violent attacks that seized Iraq, the relative reprieve of the past several years, and escalating violence returning to the country.

Jacopo Ottaviani

Map Room

Death March

It's hard to understand the scale and spread of killing in Syria, until you see this map.

Tracking the casualties of Syria's civil war has been difficult, if not impossible, from the very start. Since March 2011, the United Nations has struggled to glean reliable information from the fog of war. The U.N. has relied on the Human Rights Data Analysis Group (HRDAG), a San Francisco-based non-profit "that applies rigorous science to the analysis of human rights violations around the world," to sort through data from eight different sources including independent observatories and Syrian human rights watchers. (Read Tina Rosenberg's fascinating profile of Patrick Ball and the methodology behind HRDAG's numbers, written back when the body count in Syria was estimated at less than 10,000.) Killings were counted only if the name of the victim and the date and location of death were known, making the figures provided by the United Nations and HRDAG non-exhaustive; rather, they are the minimum number of people who have died in Syria.

Last week, the United Nations said it would no longer be updating its casualty figures. "It was always a very difficult figure," a U.N. spokesman told the Associated Press. "It was always very close to the edge in terms of how much we could guarantee the source material was accurate. And it reached a point where we felt we could no longer cross that line. So for the time being, we're not updating those figures."

The last time the United Nations announced casualty figures for the Syrian civil war was when the tally surpassed the 100,000 death threshold in July 2013.

The lack of access for reporters and humanitarian agencies within Syria has only made this task more difficult. Whether an authoritative tally of casualties in Syria will ever be possible remains an open question, but one thing is clear: over the past three years, the violence has spread dramatically. From the early hotbeds of resistance in Hama and Homs, to the political and cultural hubs of Damascus and Aleppo, to the Syrian borderlands and the Kurdish northeast, the war has metastasized.

This map illustrates what that toll looks like across space and time.

It visualizes the approximately 74,000 people who died from March 2011 to November 2013. Every flare represents the death of one or more people, the most common causes being shooting, shelling, and field execution. The brighter a flare is, the more people died in that specific time and place. The data used are drawn from the Violations Documentation Center (VDC), the documentation arm of the Local Coordination Committees in Syria which has been one of the eight sources on which HRDAG has based its count. In a June 2013 report, HRDAG cited VDC as the most thorough accounting of casualties in Syria, though the dataset has been found to contain some inconsistencies. Inaccurate data that has been found in these datasets has been removed, but because of the difficulty of reporting casualties in Syria, this should not be considered a 100 percent accurate or exhaustive documentation of Syrian war deaths. Indeed, it almost certainly is affected by a selection bias that favors reporting casualties in more scrutinized areas while neglecting violence in more remote areas. The VDC has also noted that some families decline to report casualties for fear of being targeted again.

What the map demonstrates is the escalation of the conflict -- with data from March 2011 through the VDC's Nov. 21, 2013 report -- and its quick descent from being a smattering of violence to a multi-front war with militias challenging the military (and other militias) almost everywhere at once. What it can't show, of course, is the horror and destruction of this war.

Jacopo Ottaviani