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War's Iraqi Death Toll Tops 50,000

THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

Higher than the U.S. estimate, the tally likely is undercounted. Proportionately, it is as if 570,000 Americans were slain in three years.

June 25, 2006|Louise Roug and Doug Smith | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — At least 50,000 Iraqis have died violently since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, according to statistics from the Baghdad morgue, the Iraqi Health Ministry and other agencies -- a toll 20,000 higher than previously acknowledged by the Bush administration.

Many more Iraqis are believed to have been killed but not counted because of serious lapses in recording deaths in the chaotic first year after the invasion, when there was no functioning Iraqi government, and continued spotty reporting nationwide since.

The toll, which is mostly of civilians but probably also includes some security forces and insurgents, is daunting: Proportionately, it is equivalent to 570,000 Americans being killed nationwide in the last three years.

In the same period, at least 2,520 U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq.

Iraqi officials involved in compiling the statistics say violent deaths in some regions have been grossly undercounted, notably in the troubled province of Al Anbar in the west. Health workers there are unable to compile the data because of violence, security crackdowns, electrical shortages and failing telephone networks.

The Health Ministry acknowledged the undercount. In addition, the ministry said its figures exclude the three northern provinces of the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan because Kurdish officials do not provide death toll figures to the government in Baghdad.

In the three years since Saddam Hussein's regime was toppled, the Bush administration has rarely offered civilian death tolls. Last year, President Bush said he believed that "30,000, more or less, have died as a result of the initial incursion and the ongoing violence against Iraqis."

Nongovernmental organizations have made estimates by tallying media accounts; The Times attempted to reach a comprehensive figure by obtaining statistics from the Baghdad morgue and the Health Ministry and checking those numbers against a sampling of local health departments for possible undercounts.

The Health Ministry gathers numbers from hospitals in the capital and the outlying provinces. If a victim of violence dies at a hospital or arrives dead, medical officials issue a death certificate. Relatives claim the body directly from the hospital and arrange for a speedy burial in keeping with Muslim beliefs.

If the morgue receives a body -- usually those deemed suspicious deaths -- officials there issue the death certificate.

Health Ministry officials said that because death certificates are issued and counted separately, the two data sets are not overlapping.

The Baghdad morgue received 30,204 bodies from 2003 through mid-2006, while the Health Ministry said it had documented 18,933 deaths from "military clashes" and "terrorist attacks" from April 5, 2004, to June 1, 2006. Together, the toll reaches 49,137.

However, samples obtained from local health departments in other provinces show an undercount that brings the total well beyond 50,000. The figure also does not include deaths outside Baghdad in the first year of the invasion.

The documented cases show a country descending further into violence.

At the Baghdad morgue, the vast majority of bodies processed had been shot execution-style. Many showed signs of torture -- drill holes, burns, missing eyes and limbs, officials said. Others had been strangled, beheaded, stabbed or beaten to death.

The morgue records show a predominantly civilian toll; the hospital records gathered by the Health Ministry do not distinguish between civilians, combatants and security forces.

But Health Ministry records do differentiate causes of death. Almost 75% of those who died violently were killed in "terrorist acts," typically bombings, the records show. The other 25% were killed in what were classified as military clashes. A health official described the victims as "innocent bystanders," many shot by Iraqi or American troops, in crossfire or accidentally at checkpoints.

With the entire country a battleground, it is likely that some of the dead may have been insurgents or members of militias.

"The way to think about the violence is that it's not just the insurgent attacks that matter," said David Lake, a member of the Center for Study of Civil War, an international group of scholars who study the causes and effects of internal strife. "What we should be concerned about is the sense of security at the individual level.... If the fear has gotten out of control."

Societies fall apart when people stop believing the government can keep them safe them and instead turn to militias for protection, said Lake, who is a professor of political science at UC San Diego.

"The question is, have we crossed that threshold? My sense is, we probably have, and that's why I'm worried about the long-term outcome."

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