By QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRA and LEE KEATH
The Associated Press
Wednesday, October 11, 2006; 12:39 PM
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- More than 2,660 Iraqi civilians were killed in the capital in September amid a wave of sectarian killings and insurgent attacks, an increase of 400 over the month before, according to figures from the Iraqi Health Ministry.
The increase came despite an intensified U.S.-Iraqi sweep of Baghdad that was launched in mid-August to try to put down the wave of violence that has swept over the capital. The violence consists of a deadly combination of bombings and shootings by Sunni insurgents, and slayings by Shiite and Sunni death squads.
The September numbers come as a controversial new study contends that nearly 655,000 Iraqis have died in the three-year-old conflict in Iraq _ more than 10 times higher than other independent estimates of the toll.
President Bush dismissed as "just not credible" the study's estimate study that contends nearly 655,000 Iraqis have died because of the war.
Bush, who in the past has suggested 30,000 civilian deaths in Iraq, would not give a figure for overall fatalities. "A lot of innocent people have lost their life," he said at a news conference in Washington.
The study, which is to be published Thursday on the Web site of The Lancet, a medical journal, was based on a survey of households in Iraq, not a body count, and quickly raised skepticism among some Iraq experts.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said it was difficult "with any certainty" to estimate the number of Iraqi civilians who have died, and said the department does everything possible to prevent civilian casualties.
"We take great precautions in our military operations," he said. "That's in stark contrast to what the enemy in Iraq is doing. They take no such precautions. In fact, they deliberately target innocent civilians in their attacks."
An accurate count of total Iraqi deaths since the war's start has been difficult to obtain. According to an Associated Press tally, at least 13,414 Iraqis have been killed in war-related violence through Tuesday since the new government took office on April 28, 2005. Of those, 9,300 were civilians.
The AP tally is compiled from hospital, police and military officials cited in news stories, as well as accounts from reporters and photographers at the scenes. The actual number is likely higher as many killings go unreported or uncounted.
A private group called Iraqi Body Count says it has recorded about 44,000 to 49,000 civilian Iraqi deaths. But it notes that those totals are based on media reports, which it says probably overlook "many if not most civilian casualties."
The figures for the number of civilian deaths in September in Baghdad came in an official monthly report from the Health Ministry to the Cabinet on the number of Baghdad victims of violent deaths, two senior ministry officials told The Associated Press.
The two officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the government has issued orders that the death figures not be released. Civilian casualty numbers are always sensitive, and several other officials in the Health and Interior ministries contacted by the AP refused to give statistics.
The report said 2,667 civilians had died violent deaths in September _ an average of 89 a day. Those deaths include bodies found dumped around Baghdad and the victims of explosions, shootings and other attacks, the two officials said.
By comparison, 2,222 people died violently in August in Baghdad, according to a U.N. report published in September, which is also based on official statistics from the Health Ministry.
The two ministry officials said the U.N. number was accurate for the August deaths.
The monthly figures include two categories. One is the number of bodies found in Baghdad, provided from the city morgue, where the bodies are taken to determine the cause of death.
In September, the morgue reported 1,471 bodies of people who died from violence.
Shiite and Sunni death squads are known to kidnap members of the opposing sect, then dump bodies of their victims, often bound and tortured. So a large proportion of the 1,471 bodies are likely from sectarian killings _ though they also would include victims of criminal kidnappings and murders.
The other category included in the monthly figure encompasses the victims of explosions, shootings or other attacks, reported by hospitals. They numbered 1,196 in September, according to the report, the two Health Ministry officials said.
In August, 1,536 bodies were brought to the morgue, according to the U.N. report.
The past summer has seen a startling increase in bloodshed, centered in the capital, after the wave of sectarian violence was sparked by the February bombing of a Shiite shrine in the city of Samarra, north of Baghdad.
The deadliest month was July, when 3,590 people were killed across the country _ 2,884 of them in Baghdad, according to the U.N. The number killed countrywide fell in August to 3,009, the U.N. said.
The Health Ministry officials who spoke to the AP did not have September figures for the entire country, only for Baghdad.
Associated Press Writer Malcolm Ritter in New York contributed to this report.