Death Toll For Iraqis Reaches New High

By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 23, 2006

BAGHDAD, Nov. 22 -- The number of civilians killed in Iraq reached a record monthly high of 3,709 in October, mostly a result of sectarian violence, according to a U.N. report released Wednesday.

The report by the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq described the many ways civilians have been killed, from roadside bombs to drive-by shootings to kidnappings. Many were found handcuffed, blindfolded and bearing signs of torture and execution-style killing. Most had gunshot wounds.

Culling from figures kept by Iraq's Health Ministry, private hospitals and Baghdad's morgue, the report described a rapidly deteriorating society that has forced an estimated 1.6 million people to flee to neighboring countries since the war began in 2003. No longer are terrorists and insurgents the main perpetrators of the killings. Death squads linked to militias, often in collusion with the Iraqi police, and criminal gangs are also responsible, the report said. Many slayings were simply acts of vengeance.

"There's a great deal of people taking the law into their own hands and not looking for justice within the system," Gianni Magazzeni, head of the U.N. human rights office in Baghdad, said in an interview.

Wednesday was no different: About 100 people were killed across the country. Among them was a bodyguard of Iraq's parliament speaker, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, who himself escaped an apparent assassination attempt the day before. Also killed was a journalist for the state-run al-Sabah newspaper, gunned down as he drove through the capital.

Keeping track of casualties in Iraq is an imprecise process that has become increasingly embarrassing for Iraqi leaders trying to project the image that they are ready to take over the normal functions of government. The British-based research group Iraq Body Count estimates that about 50,000 civilians have died since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Last month, a team of American and Iraqi epidemiologists gave a more dire assessment, estimating that 655,000 more people have died in the post-invasion period than would have if there had not been a war.

The Iraqi government quickly moved to discredit the U.N. report, saying the United Nations had gathered information from unreliable sources. At the same time, it did not provide its own tally.

"Yes, we have casualties, but not that huge number of casualties," Health Minister Ali Hussein al-Shamari said on Iraqi television. "The true number might be a quarter that, although we feel sorry for those who are dying. But they want to mislead the world about the conditions in Iraq."

Magazzeni dismissed the U.N. report's detractors, saying that much of the information came from the Health Ministry.

The report looked at casualty figures for the months of September and October. In the two months combined, the number of civilians killed was 7,054, almost 5,000 of them in Baghdad. That was an increase from the 6,599 killed in July and August, as previously reported by the human rights office.

Many of the dead were women and children. Professionals such as college professors, journalists and politicians were particularly targeted. Others were not intended victims and simply got caught in crossfire between rival gangs or between insurgents and police or soldiers.

Magazzeni said the government has to improve its judicial system and increase accountability in the Interior Ministry, the police and the prison system to stop the violence. "The more we can do to fight impunity and to increase accountability of ongoing violations in the judicial system, the more this will help reestablish order," he said.

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