BAGHDAD — Iraqi Health Ministry officials have ordered a halt to a count of civilian deaths from the war and have told workers not to release figures already compiled, the head of the ministry's statistics department said Wednesday.
The health minister, Dr. Khodeir Abbas, denied that he or the U.S.-led occupation authority had anything to do with the order, and said he didn't even know about the survey of deaths, which number in the thousands.
Dr. Nagham Mohsen, head of the ministry's statistics department, said the order came from the ministry's director of planning, Dr. Nazar Shabandar, who told her it was on behalf of Abbas. She said the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, which oversees the ministry, didn't like the idea of the count.
"We have stopped the collection of this information because our minister didn't agree with it," she said.
Abbas, whose secretary said he was out of the country, sent an e-mail denying the charge.
"I have no knowledge of a civilian war casualty survey even being started by the Ministry of Health, much less stopping it," he wrote. "The CPA did not direct me to stop any such survey."
Despite Abbas' professed ignorance, the Health Ministry's civilian death toll count had been reported by media as early as August, and the count was widely anticipated by human rights organizations. The ministry issued a preliminary figure of 1,764 deaths during the summer.
A Los Angeles Times survey of civilian deaths in Baghdad alone found that at least 1,700 civilians had died in the five weeks starting March 20, when the war began.
Associated Press documented the deaths of 3,240 civilians between March 20 and April 20, based on surveys of about half of Iraq's hospitals.
The Health Ministry's count was to be based on the records of all of Iraq's hospitals.
The U.S. military doesn't count civilian casualties from its wars, saying only that it tries to minimize civilian deaths.