In the first four years of the war, the United Nations offered estimated civilian death totals in quarterly reports assessing the situation in Iraq. The Iraqi government began withholding the numbers this year, apparently after concluding that officials in ministries providing the figures were inflating them for political purposes. The move followed a U.N. report estimating that 34,452 civilians had died in 2006. The Iraqi government put the 2006 total at 12,357.
A peer-reviewed study published in the medical journal Lancet last year suggested that more than 600,000 Iraqis had died since the U.S. invasion of March 2003. Rubaie, referring to the Lancet report as "that ridiculous study," said most high casualty estimates came from foreign-based organizations not in a position to provide accurate information. The Lancet study was based on a survey of nearly 2,000 Iraqi households, not a body count, with the results extrapolated for the country.
Some say the actual numbers are secondary to the larger questions of why sectarian killings may have dropped, and whether they will remain low.
Phebe Marr, an Iraq expert at the U.S. Institute for Peace in Washington, noted that statistics from the International Organization for Migration indicated that Iraqis were resettling along sectarian lines, largely due to violence. If that is the case, she said, the increased balkanization of the country may have reduced opportunities for sectarian deaths.
"I don't know how many more mixed areas there are any more," Marr said. "Yes, it has calmed things for the moment," she said of the troop buildup. "But it's a very bad situation to have a city and a country divided up like that. That is one of the things Iraq has to crawl back from."
In the meantime, Rubaie acknowledged that the government needed to devise a method to account for its dead citizens.
"I admit that we, as the Iraqi government, have a responsibility to go back to our records and do this properly and openly and help produce a figure which is credible," he said.
Times staff writers Saif Rasheed in Baghdad and Julian E. Barnes in Washington contributed to this report.