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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)

"They're afraid," the official said.

Morgue authorities now say that only 250 bodies were received between Feb. 22 and 28. That breaks down to about 35 bodies a day, scarcely more than the daily average of roughly 30 corpses reported since the middle of last year. And it is unclear how, or whether, the government includes execution-style militia killings in the tally.

Iraqi officials denied that the death figures had been manipulated.

"I find it very unlikely, very strange, that some political official would come and impose their own views on this ministry," said Qasim Yahiya, a spokesman for the Health Ministry.

Haitham al-Husseini, a spokesman for the SCIRI, said: "How can SCIRI put pressure on authorities or on people? I don't expect you can believe such a thing. How can SCIRI go to a ministry and give instruction to an official to do this or that?"

"This is part of the campaign that the enemies of Iraq and the Iraqi people are still trying to lead to confuse the situation," Husseini said. "And this is part of their campaign to show their lies about the Ministry of Interior and what is happening and also to draw the attention of the people away from the crimes they are committing against the civilians."

The widely differing tolls reflect acute political sensitivity at a time when Iraq's three-year-old conflict is undergoing a fundamental shift: Execution-style killings of the kind frequently blamed on police or Shiite militias allied with the government appear to be killing more Iraqis than bombings of government and civilian targets by Sunni Arab insurgents.

Since Jan. 30, 2005, when Iraq held its first parliamentary elections since President Saddam Hussein was ousted almost two years earlier, the country's Shiite majority has controlled the largest bloc in parliament and the most powerful positions in the cabinet. The SCIRI is the dominant member of the governing Shiite coalition and holds several key cabinet portfolios, including the Interior Ministry, which oversees Iraq's police.

The Health Ministry, which operates the Baghdad morgue and government hospitals, is in the hands of a religious party headed by Moqtada al-Sadr, the Shiite cleric whose militia, the Mahdi Army, waged two armed uprisings against U.S. forces in 2004. Since the Samarra bombing, the Mahdi Army has been widely accused of kidnapping and killing Sunni men. Families collecting bodies at the morgue last week described gunmen in the black clothes associated with Sadr's militia coming to Sunni homes or to mosques and taking men away.

Sadr's organization has denied any connection with the killings, saying crimes were being committed by people who had dressed in black to focus blame on the Mahdi Army.

At Baghdad's morgue, where the walls are decorated with pictures of Sadr, Post reporters saw bodies overflowing into hallways and onto floors during the week following the Samarra bombing. Bodies taken to the morgue are almost invariably victims of shootings and other circumstances requiring investigation; those killed in bombings and rocket and mortar attacks are taken to hospitals because the cause of death is considered clear-cut.

A Post reporter visiting the morgue about noon Feb. 23, the day after the mosque bombing and before the subsequent violence peaked, counted the bodies of 84 males ranging in age from about 12 to more than 60. All died violently -- the morgue handles most violent deaths for which police request an investigation -- and morgue officials separately told the Agence France-Presse news agency at the time that 80 people had been killed in the first hours of violence after the mosque bombing.

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