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U.S. defends sectarian death figures

Military denies its tally is designed to exclude some killings. Iraqi officials say others' numbers are inflated.

September 13, 2007|Tina Susman | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — U.S. military officials sought Wednesday to counter accusations that they were manipulating death tolls to make Iraq look more secure.

Stung by accusations that Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, had presented selective statistics during his testimony before Congress, the military released a statement here outlining its definition of sectarian violence: bombings, killings or other attacks committed by an ethnic group or religious sect against another, for purely sectarian purposes.

The number of civilians killed in sectarian attacks has been used as a key indicator in arguments over President Bush's military strategy in Iraq, particularly his decision earlier this year to increase troop levels by 28,500.

Based on the Pentagon's definition of sectarian violence, Petraeus said the number of such killings had decreased nationwide by more than 55% since December. Overall civilian deaths, according to Petraeus' charts, dropped by about 50%.

The Iraqi government also compiles statistics, but does not differentiate between sectarian and other violent deaths. Sources in Iraq's ministries of Health, Interior and Defense put the December civilian death toll from war-related violence at 2,075, compared with 1,773 in August. That would amount to a decline of less than 15%.

A chart displayed during Petraeus' testimony Monday and Tuesday showed about 2,200 Iraqi deaths in sectarian violence in December, compared with fewer than 1,000 last month: the 55% drop cited by Petraeus.

Retired Army Col. Douglas A. Macgregor, a defense analyst who supported the invasion but is critical of the current strategy, said several factors made body counts unreliable in Iraq. Among them are the Muslim practice of burying bodies as soon as possible, the general chaos of war, and sectarian agendas within Maliki's government.

"You're talking about an environment where there is absolutely no accountability for anything," Macgregor said. "The bottom line is, whatever figures you are given are simply inaccurate."

Based on anecdotal evidence, there is little doubt that violence has ebbed in many areas. The thunderous blasts that once were part of daily life in Baghdad are less frequent. The daily tally of suspected sectarian killings in the capital, which in January often topped 40, now averages about 12. The victims are identified as such because they generally are males found without identification documents and shot execution-style. The bodies usually are blindfolded and bound at the wrists, and often bear signs of torture. On Wednesday, 11 such bodies were found, according to an official in the Interior Ministry, which oversees the national police.

Huge bombing attacks, though, continue to kill scores of civilians. Last month, as many as 400 people died in an attack in a remote village in northern Iraq.

At the National Press Club in Washington on Wednesday, Petraeus held up a copy of the military's three-page methodology for categorizing violence and said it was "just not true" that it excluded some victims based on such factors as the way a bullet enters a victim's head.

"As only the military can, we have a three-page document on ethno-sectarian violence methodology," Petraeus said. "And it is fairly comprehensive, and it's pretty logical and rational. And in the execution category, it says civilians that show signs of torture, being bound, blindfolded, or shot anywhere in the head and so forth."

In Baghdad on Wednesday, the national security advisor, Mowaffak Rubaie, agreed with the U.S. military that numbers coming from the media and other outlets were "very, very, very exaggerated."

Asked what the true death toll was, Rubaie said, "I don't have a figure, but I can say one thing: You probably would be correct if you removed one zero from the figures which are in the public domain or published by the newspapers."

A member of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's Shiite Muslim bloc in parliament, Amera Baldawi, agreed with Rubaie. "Security has been noticeably enhanced" since the arrival of extra U.S. troops, she said. "From the first days . . . the numbers of dumped corpses, beheaded bodies and assassinations decreased."

Noureddine Hayali, a member of the main Sunni Arab bloc in parliament, said he suspected officials were not reporting sectarian deaths in other cities.

He also questioned whether the U.S. military figures included such incidents as killings last March in the northern city of Tall Afar. In that incident, Shiite policemen aided by angry mobs killed at least 70 Sunnis after a truck bomb blamed on Sunni insurgents killed more than 80 people, most of them Shiites.

"It is not in the interest of the government to show all these numbers. They want to show that they have made progress by decreasing death numbers," Hayali said.

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