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U.N. issues report; Iraq won't disclose civilian toll

April 26, 2007|Tina Susman | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — The Iraqi government has refused to provide the United Nations with civilian casualty figures for its latest report on the hardships facing Iraqis, the U.N. said Wednesday, but numbers from various ministries indicate that more than 5,500 people died in the Baghdad area alone in the first three months of this year.

The numbers, provided to The Times by employees in government ministries, could not be independently verified but were higher than those in an independent nationwide civilian death count based on news accounts. Numbers provided by employees of ministries also appear to indicate an increase in Baghdad civilian deaths in recent weeks after an ebb when a new security plan was launched in February.

At a news conference to unveil the United Nations' report, spokesman Said Arikat said no "official" reason had been given by the government for not issuing casualty figures. But Ivana Vuco, a U.N. human rights officer, said government officials had made it clear during discussions that they believed releasing high casualty numbers would make it harder for the government to quell unrest.

"We were told they were concerned that people would misconstrue the figures to portray the situation very negatively, and that would further undermine their efforts to establish some kind of stability and security in the country," Vuco said, adding, "These are, in a way

"However, we are trying to stress our point of view, which is that transparency is the key to establishing security."

Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's government rejected the U.N. report for its criticisms of the country's judicial system, saying it "lacks accuracy" and balance. Among other things, the U.N. said some prisoners in Iraqi detention facilities faced torture, were forced into confessing to alleged crimes and were denied adequate access to lawyers.

U.S. Embassy officials also faulted the findings, saying the criticism of the legal system in particular contained inaccuracies.

American officials also defended Maliki's decision to withhold casualty figures and said that in the past, several ministries had issued conflicting numbers.

"There were sometimes concerns with political motivations" in the release of statistics, one U.S. Embassy official said, referring to the sectarian and ethnic polarization in Maliki's government. The prime minister's aim is to have "one voice" from the government delivering numbers that have been consolidated and verified, to prevent such things as double-counting, the official said.

The criticisms of the U.N. findings came at a time of growing public impatience with a U.S.-Iraqi security program launched in mid-February that has yet to quell violence, despite the addition of thousands of troops in Baghdad and neighboring provinces.

The criticisms also underscored the difficulty of obtaining accurate information about civilian casualties across Iraq.

Arikat, of the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq, refused to offer any U.N. estimate and said it was too early to judge the security plan, but he made it clear that violence remained out of control. "There's insurgent violence, there's criminal violence, there's military violence, there's all kinds of honor killings and so on," he said. "Violence has many tentacles. It's like an octopus."

The report is the U.N.'s 10th on the situation in Iraq. In its previous report, issued in January, the U.N. said 34,452 civilians had died in violence last year, a figure it based on information from government ministries, hospitals and medical officials.

The Iraqi government put the 2006 death toll at 12,357.

The medical journal Lancet estimated in October that more than 600,000 Iraqis had died since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. The journal's numbers were criticized by President Bush and other U.S. and Iraqi officials as not being credible.

The numbers obtained by The Times indicated that civilian deaths numbered 1,991 in January, dropped to 1,646 in February -- the month the security plan began -- then rose to 1,872 in March. Such numbers appear to mirror the recent rise in bombings targeting crowded public areas.

The January U.N. report did not include a monthly breakdown of civilian deaths but estimated that 4,731 civilians had died in Baghdad in November and December 2006. That would represent a monthly average of 2,366, higher than the three-month average obtained Wednesday. But officials providing the figures to The Times, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to release numbers, said the true count for the first three months of 2007 could be far higher.

The trend they indicated was similar to that suggested by the website, which monitors civilian and military deaths in Iraq and bases its count on news reports. It estimates that 4,766 civilians died nationwide from January through March: 1,711 in January, 1,381 in February, and 1,674 in March. For the same period in 2006, the website put the total at less than half that: 2,179.

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