Pressure Seen on Probes at Baghdad Morgue

By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 1, 2006

BAGHDAD, Feb. 28 -- Officials overseeing Baghdad's morgue have come under pressure not to investigate the soaring number of apparent cases of execution and torture in the country, the former U.N. human rights chief for Iraq said Tuesday.

John Pace, who left his post this month, spoke as Iraqi and U.S. officials offered widely varying numbers for the toll so far in the explosion of sectarian violence that followed last Wednesday's bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra.

Pace said the pressure had come from "both sides," but declined to give further details. The statement seemed to refer to both the Shiite-led government and the Sunni insurgency fighting it.

Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari said Tuesday that the death toll provided to The Washington Post by morgue workers -- more than 1,300 dead since last Wednesday -- was "inaccurate and exaggerated." Jafari said the toll was 379. Gen. Ali Shamarri of the Interior Ministry's statistics department put the toll at 1,077.

U.S. and Iraqi officials offered figures on Tuesday both higher and lower than Jafari's count. The U.S. military said it had confirmed 220 deaths. Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a military spokesman in Iraq, said that the country's joint Iraqi-U.S. operations center reported receiving accounts of 365 civilian deaths and that officials at the center believed the count could reach about 550.

Last week's bombing of the Samarra's Askariya shrine, also known as the Golden Mosque, unleashed the most intense burst of Shiite-Sunni violence since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Shiite religious militias, particularly the black-clad fighters of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, deployed in their first wide-scale show of force since their battles with U.S. forces in 2004.

Many residents of areas affected by the past week's violence, and many of those picking up bodies of relatives this week, accused Sadr's Mahdi Army militia of abductions and killings.

Sadr's aides have denied the allegations, saying others were putting on black shirts and pants similar to those worn by the cleric's militiamen to deflect blame.

On Monday, workers at Baghdad's main morgue said that more than 1,300 bodies had been brought in since the previous Wednesday and that 200 to 300 bodies remained unclaimed. Washington Post reporters saw several dozen bodies on the floor and on gurneys and tables in the entry halls outside the main rooms of the morgue. All the dead appeared to be victims of violence, as did the men in photographs of what morgue workers said were the unclaimed dead.

Many of the men had been brought to the morgue and photographed with their hands still pinioned behind their backs or tied in front of them with plastic cables.

On Tuesday, the acting director of the morgue, Qais Hassan, denied that the morgue had received 1,300 bodies, according to the Reuters news agency. He said only 309 bodies had come in. However, even that figure, added to the more than 80 deaths in cities outside Baghdad reported by news media from Wednesday to Monday, exceeds the 379 deaths nationwide that Jafari cited.

News media tolls generally are lower than the actual tally of the dead, because not all news of attacks reaches the media, and because killings with only one victim generally are not reported unless the victims are notable figures or killed in bombings.

Many of the recent killings by torture and execution have been blamed on forces of the Shiite-dominated Interior Ministry, as well as allied Shiite militias of Sadr's group and of one of the other ruling Shiite religious parties in the government. Shiite leaders have repeatedly denied accusations of any involvement with death squads.

Pace, speaking by phone from his home in Sydney, said some of the officials connected with the morgue had been put "under a lot of these pressures" and had been threatened in the past and told not to investigate the killings of those brought to the morgue "precisely because it was considered a way of attributing responsibility for such crimes."

The pressure would be to underreport the numbers "or to ignore them," Pace said. "I think the pressure would be not to take into account the totality of cases.

"The ultimate objective is not to count the bodies" in political killings, Pace said. "The objective is to use that data in order to take measures to prevent its recurrence, and to take measures to identify the perpetrators and bring them to justice."

Other Washington Post staff contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company