Official Says Shiite Party Suppressed Body Count

The Feb. 22 bombing of the Shiites' Askariya shrine in Samarra set off a wave of retaliatory violence against Sunnis. The resulting death toll is in question.
The Feb. 22 bombing of the Shiites' Askariya shrine in Samarra set off a wave of retaliatory violence against Sunnis. The resulting death toll is in question. (By Khalid Mohammed -- Associated Press)
By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 9, 2006

BAGHDAD, March 8 -- Days after the bombing of a Shiite shrine unleashed a wave of retaliatory killings of Sunnis, the leading Shiite party in Iraq's governing coalition directed the Health Ministry to stop tabulating execution-style shootings, according to a ministry official familiar with the recording of deaths.

The official, who spoke on the condition that he not be named because he feared for his safety, said a representative of the Shiite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, ordered that government hospitals and morgues catalogue deaths caused by bombings or clashes with insurgents, but not by execution-style shootings.

A statement this week by the U.N. human rights department in Baghdad appeared to support the account of the Health Ministry official. The agency said it had received information about Baghdad's main morgue -- where victims of fatal shootings are taken -- that indicated "the current acting director is under pressure by the Interior Ministry in order not to reveal such information and to minimize the number of casualties."

The U.N. office said it had not confirmed the information about the morgue and had been unable so far to obtain an accounting of the toll from Iraqi authorities.

Spokesmen for the Health Ministry and the Supreme Council -- commonly known by its initials, SCIRI -- denied that any order to alter the tabulation of deaths had been issued.

Abductions and killings of Sunni Arab men, usually by gunshots to the back of the head, have occurred with increasing frequency over the past year and are widely blamed on government-allied Shiite religious militias and death squads alleged to be operating from inside the SCIRI-dominated Interior Ministry. In particular, Shiite militias have been accused of abducting and executing large numbers of Sunni men in the days immediately following the Feb. 22 destruction of the Askariya mosque, a revered Shiite shrine in the northern city of Samarra.

After a lull in recent days, abductions and killings flared again in Baghdad on Wednesday. Police in west Baghdad found a minibus that contained the bodies of 18 bound and strangled men, and 50 employees of an Iraqi security firm were kidnapped on the east side of the city.

The Washington Post reported on Feb. 28 that more than 1,300 shooting victims had been brought to the morgue in the first six days after the Samarra bombing. The figure was provided by a morgue worker who refused to be identified by name.

Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari denied the account, saying Shiite-Sunni violence had claimed 379 lives in the week following the attack on the shrine. Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the U.S. commander in Iraq, called The Post's report exaggerated and inaccurate. An e-mail sent to U.S. military officials this week seeking updated casualty figures went unanswered.

But during the past week, various government ministries declined to give a breakdown of the 379 total, or said they were unable to, and several inconsistencies in their accounts appeared to call the government's tally into question.

In addition to the morgue worker, three sources -- the Health Ministry official, an official with the Interior Ministry and an international official in Baghdad -- involved in tallying or monitoring the mounting deaths also have put the toll at 1,000 or more, though none gave a toll as high as 1,300. Two of the sources said pressure by Shiite leaders not to report execution-style shootings had produced the lower death toll announced by Jafari.

The international official said "Ministry of Health types" were reckoning about 1,000 deaths before Jafari issued his denial. "By February 28th, even the 1st, that was the number being floated, almost acknowledged" publicly, the international official said, referring to March 1. "Then the government announced'' its lower figure.

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