Saturday, March 11, 2006

Total Toll Of Iraqi Dead Unknown

Tens of thousands of Iraqis have died since the U.S. invasion in 2003, but an exact figure on the deaths is elusive.
By Jim Krane
Associated Press
March 11, 2006

BAGHDAD - Three years into the Iraq war, one grim measure of its impact on Iraqis can be seen at Baghdad's morgue: There, the staff has photographed and cataloged more than 24,000 bodies from the Baghdad area alone since 2003, almost all killed in violence.

Despite such snapshots, the overall number of Iraqi civilians and soldiers killed since the U.S.-led invasion in spring 2003 remains murky. Bloodshed has worsened each year, pushing the Iraqi death toll into the tens of thousands. But no one knows the exact toll.

President Bush has said he thinks violence claimed at least 30,000 Iraqi dead as of December, while some researchers have cited numbers of 50,000, 75,000 or beyond.

The Pentagon has carefully counted the number of American military dead -- now more than 2,300 -- but declines to release its tally of Iraqi civilian or insurgent deaths.

The health ministry estimates 1,093 civilians died in the first two months of this year, nearly a quarter of the deaths government ministries reported in all of 2005.

The Iraqi government, however, has swung wildly in its casualty estimates, leading many to view its figures with skepticism.

At the Baghdad morgue, more than 10,000 corpses were delivered in 2005, up from more than 8,000 in 2004 and about 6,000 in 2003, said the morgue's director, Dr. Faik Baker. All were corpses from either suspicious deaths or violent or war-related deaths.

Conflicting numbers

By contrast, the morgue recorded fewer than 3,000 violent or suspicious deaths in 2002, before the war, Baker said. The tally at the Baghdad morgue alone -- one of several mortuaries in Iraq -- exceeds figures from Iraqi government ministries that say 7,429 Iraqis were killed across all of Iraq in 2005.

''The violence keeps getting worse,'' the morgue director said Feb. 28 by phone from Jordan, where he said he had fled recently for his own safety after he said he was under pressure to not report deaths. Freezers built to hold six bodies are sometimes crammed with 20 unclaimed corpses. ''You can imagine what a mess it is,'' he said.

Baghdad, which is home to a fifth of Iraq's 25 million inhabitants, has been a main center of the violence, with insurgent attacks and sectarian tensions both high here.

Regardless of the lack of a precise figure on deaths, virtually all studies agree that among Iraqi government security forces, the police are at greater risk than the army. But it is Iraqi civilians who bear the brunt of the deaths.

According to the government's own count, twice as many Iraqi civilians -- 4,024 -- died last year in insurgency-related violence than police and soldiers.

Urban battlefield

Part of the reason for the high civilian death toll is that insurgents prefer to strike in the cities, especially Baghdad.

There is no way to verify the Iraqi government death figures independently, as is the case with most statistics in Iraq. Journalists and academics rely on figures provided by police, hospitals, the U.S. military and the Interior Ministry.

Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution who has followed the war's casualties, estimates 45,000 to 75,000 Iraqis have been killed, including insurgents and Iraqi soldiers.

O'Hanlon, who teaches a Columbia University course on estimating war casualties, called Bush's figure of 30,000 ``on the lower end of the plausible range.''

Iraq Body Count, a British antiwar group, put its tally of war dead at between 28,864 and 32,506 as of Feb. 26, but that doesn't include Iraqi soldiers or insurgents. It compiles its estimate of civilian deaths from news stories, corroborating each death through at least two reports.


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