Newspapers suggest that bombing Saddam Hussein's factories and military installations would kill 10,000 Iraqi soldiers and civilians. Nine months ago newspapers predicted that a new round of bombings would kill 1,500 Iraqis. Where do these numbers come from and how reliable are they?
The Washington Post first reported the 10,000-dead figure on Nov. 16, citing "administration sources" who had seen "medium case" Pentagon forecasts. One day later, a similarly sourced New York Times piece projected "several thousand" casualties.
Why do the Post and the Times numbers clash? The 10,000-dead number was leaked the day after Clinton cancelled the air strikes, and it's possible that White House leakers inflated the estimate to help the president deflect criticism that he's soft on the Iraqis. Or, it could be that the Times was given something other than the "medium case" forecast.
Historically, the government's casualty predictions vary in accuracy. For instance, in January 1993 and September 1996, the press corps drew on government sources to accurately predict that American bombs would kill (relatively) few Iraqis. (Iraqi officials, who are likely to overstate the true figures, reported that 40 Iraqis were killed in 1993 and six in 1996.)
On the other hand, sometimes projected body counts are wrong and sometimes they have a way of shifting over time. In October 1990, several months before the allies attacked, the Los Angeles Times cited a secret U.S. military report to estimate that a seven to 10 day attack would kill or wound 90,000 Iraqi soldiers. By December of that year the Los Angeles Times changed its mind: "Senior officials" anticipated "tens of thousands" of Iraqi casualties. A few days after the armistice, House Armed Services Committee Chair Les Aspin expressed his belief that 65,000 Iraqi soldiers had been killed. In fact, a congressional study released one year after war's end--authored by Les Aspin!--used interviews with captured Iraqi soldiers to conclude that 9,000 Iraqi soldiers were killed in the war and 17,000 were wounded.
(The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that between 5,000 and 13,000 Iraqi civilians were killed during the war, and another 70,000 have died from malnutrition or disease caused by the destruction of Iraq's infrastructure.)