By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 8, 2006
BAGHDAD, Sept. 7 -- Baghdad's morgue almost tripled its count for violent deaths in Iraq's capital during August from 550 to 1,536, authorities said Thursday, appearing to erase most of what U.S. generals and Iraqi leaders had touted as evidence of progress in a major security operation to restore order in the capital.
Separately, the Health Ministry confirmed Thursday that it planned to construct two new branch morgues in Baghdad and add doctors and refrigerator units to raise capacity to as many as 250 corpses a day.
The morgue expansion plans and the final body count for August show the dramatic surge in violence in Baghdad since U.S.-led foreign troops entered Iraq in 2003. Baghdad's morgue chiefly handles unidentified gunshot victims, now predominantly shot execution-style and often found with hands bound and showing signs of torture.
Since the spring, as sectarian violence has mounted, monthly counts of civilian casualties have reached the highest levels of the war, topping 1,800 at the Baghdad morgue in July. At least 3,438 Iraqis were killed across the country that month, according to Iraqi government figures, nearing the total of roughly 5,000 for the entire first year of the war.
In 2002, before U.S.-led forces entered Iraq, the Baghdad morgue averaged 15 shooting victims a month, morgue officials have said.
Gianni Magazzeni, chief of the U.N. human rights office in Iraq, which tracks casualty figures from Iraq's government, confirmed Thursday that the government-run Baghdad morgue had reported 1,536 dead for August.
Bombing victims and many others who die violently in Baghdad are taken to the city's hospitals rather than the morgue. The figures announced Thursday do not include those killings, or killings outside Baghdad and its surrounding towns. A complete countrywide toll is due from the Health Ministry later this month.
At the end of August, Baghdad's morgue initially reported receiving 550 bodies during the month. U.S. military and Iraqi government officials hailed what they said was a massive decrease in violence, calling it a sign of the success of Operation Forward Together. The joint U.S.-Iraqi security push had placed at least four of Baghdad's most violent neighborhoods under cordons and search operations, which were welcomed by many residents as bringing a relief from violence.
The U.S. military had called in units from Germany and Kuwait and postponed the scheduled return home of an Alaska-based unit for the bid to return peace to Iraq's capital in the fourth year of the U.S. occupation. U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad called it the Battle of Baghdad and said it was essential that American forces win it, although U.S. commanders cautioned that the work would take months rather than weeks.
By late August, Maj. Gen. William Caldwell was claiming a 46 percent decrease in the murder rate in Baghdad for that month. "We are actually seeing progress," Caldwell said at the time. A U.S. military Web site on Thursday continued to assert a roughly 50 percent drop in killings in Baghdad.
A U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, said Thursday that the U.S. figures were based on the military's "consolidated reporting with the Iraqi government." Johnson also disclosed that the military's numbers included only "individuals targeted as a result of sectarian-related violence, to include executions," and did not include "other violent acts such as car bombs and mortars."
Johnson said he did not track the morgue's figures and could not account for the substantial gap between the military's count for August killings and the latest figures from Baghdad's morgue.
The issue of civilian casualties has been politically charged since the start of the Iraq war. Soon after the invasion, U.S. and Iraqi officials for a time forbade Baghdad's medical officials to release morgue counts.
About a week after the bombing of a Shiite Muslim shrine in Samarra in February this year, a Baghdad morgue official, a Health Ministry official and an Interior Ministry official -- all of whom oversaw the morgue's body counts -- said 1,000 or more people had been killed as Shiite militias rolled openly across Baghdad to carry out retaliatory killings. Iraqi officials and Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top U.S. commander in Iraq, called that figure exaggerated, saying only about 350 people were killed. An international official in Baghdad said Health Ministry officials had cited the higher toll before lowering it in response to what he said was political pressure.
The Health Ministry is run by the Shiite religious party of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and is guarded by his militia, known as the Mahdi Army. Sadr's militia and that of the country's other main Shiite religious party have been blamed for much of the continuing Sunni-Shiite violence.
After the Samarra bombing, morgue officials brought in refrigerated trucks to hold corpses and crammed refrigerators in the morgue far beyond their intended capacity. Most of the corpses taken to Baghdad's morgue are unidentified and are held for long periods awaiting identification.
This week, Health Minister Ali Hussein al-Shamari said morgue workers plan to begin shooting videos of the unclaimed bodies so that officials can bury them after three or four days rather than storing them at the morgue for the required two weeks.
Health officials were also working to increase the number of refrigerators to allow the morgue to handle as many as 200 to 250 bodies a day, Shamari said. Two new buildings were planned, in the districts of Karkh and Rasafa.
Morgue officials also intend to double the pay of the morgue's overworked doctors and award bonuses, the health minister said.
Shamari made his comments to a Health Ministry in-house newspaper. The ministry's spokesman, Qasim Yahia, on Thursday confirmed the details in the account. Yahia said expansion had "nothing to do with the violence and killing."
Magazzeni, the U.N. human rights official, said, "Reducing the level of violence and the number of civilians killed is crucially important." Doing so would take a "common effort" by the U.S. and Iraqi military, police and Iraq's debilitated justice system, he said.
Special correspondent Naseer Nouri and other Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.