War's Toll on Iraqis Put at 22,950 in '06

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 8, 2007

BAGHDAD, Jan. 7 -- More than 17,000 Iraqi civilians and police officers died violently in the latter half of 2006, according to Iraqi Health Ministry statistics, a sharp increase that coincided with rising sectarian strife since the February bombing of a landmark Shiite shrine.

In the first six months of last year, 5,640 Iraqi civilians and police officers were killed, but that number more than tripled to 17,310 in the latter half of the year, according to data provided by a Health Ministry official with direct knowledge of the statistics. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information, said those numbers remained incomplete, suggesting the final tally of violent deaths could be higher.

Much of last year's politically motivated bloodshed unfolded in Baghdad. The Bush administration is considering sending more U.S. troops there, as the newly ascendant Democrats in Congress press for a military withdrawal. Bringing stability and rule of law to the capital is a cornerstone of the administration's strategy to exit Iraq. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced over the weekend his own security push to tame Baghdad's sectarian strife.

Last year's spike in casualties occurred despite an ambitious U.S. military operation in the capital, Together Forward, that involved thousands of U.S. and Iraqi troops cordoning off some of the deadliest neighborhoods and conducting house-to-house searches.

"We have been in a reaction mode in many ways to the events that occurred because of the [February] bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, and that began a cycle of sectarian violence that we've been working very, very, very hard to keep under control," Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the former second-ranking commander in Iraq, told reporters last month.

"Now, I'm not in any way happy with what I see in Baghdad. The level of violence is way too high," he added.

The Health Ministry's full-year death toll of 22,950, although incomplete, is higher than the 13,896 violent deaths of civilians, police officers and soldiers reported Jan. 1 by Iraq's ministries of defense, health and interior. The United Nations, in a November report, estimated that more than 28,000 Iraqi civilians had died violently in the first 10 months of 2006, but that count was disputed by the government. The differences in the numbers could not be reconciled.

Iraq's death toll from violence is controversial because it provides a vivid report card on the difficulty of U.S. and Iraqi efforts to bring order to the country. Neither the U.S. government nor the military provides death totals for Iraqis.

"It is often very difficult to gain consensus on the numbers of casualties in Iraq. It really is a government of Iraq issue," said Lt. Col. Christopher C. Garver, a U.S. military spokesman. U.S. and Iraqi officials have discouraged Baghdad's medical officials from releasing morgue counts.

The Iraqi government does not provide a single official death toll, leaving it up to individual ministries to release data, which are often conflicting.

The Health Ministry compiles data from morgues across the nation and from government hospitals. Those figures include Iraqis killed in bombings, terrorist acts, militia attacks, roadside explosions, drive-by shootings, kidnappings and other acts of violence. They also include the numerous unidentified corpses that turn up virtually every day, often handcuffed and showing signs of torture.

The Health Ministry data are believed to be more reliable than those issued by other sources because they are based solely on death certificates. But the Health Ministry, as a policy, does not publicly release these statistics. The ministry is under the control of the Shiite religious party of Moqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army militia is behind much of the sectarian killing.

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