By Megan Greenwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 5, 2007
BAGHDAD, Aug. 4 -- The number of Iraqi civilians killed in mass-casualty bomb attacks rose sharply from June to July, while the overall number of civilian casualties remained significantly lower than before the U.S. troop increase in February, according to a Washington Post analysis.
During July, 378 people were killed in mass-casualty bombings, defined as attacks that kill more than 20 people. That figure, nearly three times the number of casualties in similar attacks in June, breaks a three-month downward trend, a troubling development for security forces just six weeks before President Bush is scheduled to receive a progress report on conditions in Iraq.
The number of civilian deaths resulting from large-scale bombings -- usually car bombs -- peaked in March, the first full month after thousands of additional U.S. troops arrived in Iraq to patrol Baghdad and surrounding provinces. The level of mass-casualty bombing fatalities dropped steadily through June but spiked significantly last month, statistics show.
Overall, the number of civilians who died violently remained roughly constant from June to July, with 1,539 people killed last month, according to U.S. military and Health Ministry statistics. That figure is less than half the number of civilians who were killed by violence in January, but it remains higher than in March, after the troop increase.
The number of unidentified bodies found on the streets of Baghdad was lower in July than in June but remained 50 percent higher than in March, according to unofficial Health Ministry statistics. Unidentified corpses, which are often found bearing signs of torture, are generally an indicator of sectarian violence.
While the military has touted its successes in Baghdad as a result of the six-month-old security plan, five of the seven mass-casualty bombings during July took place in the capital, statistics show.
The upturn in major violence is especially notable in Karrada, a busy commercial area of downtown Baghdad long considered one of the safest areas of the city. Seven car bomb attacks struck Karrada in July, including one that killed 61 people. There were no car bomb attacks in Karrada in June, Post records show.
Car bombers killed an additional 224 people in two large-scale attacks in northern Iraq. A bombing July 7 in a crowded market in the northern city of Amerli killed at least 141 people, one of the deadliest incidents since the U.S. invasion.
"We have seen some large-scale bombing attacks which cause a horrific number of casualties," said Lt. Col. Christopher C. Garver, a U.S. military spokesman. "It's something obviously we are concerned about."
Mass-casualty bombings are most often linked to the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq, which the U.S. military believes is aided by Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda. Most of the areas targeted by car bombers last month were predominantly Shiite, though a few had mixed-sect populations. No group publicly asserted responsibility for any of the bombings in July.
Garver said the relatively high number of people killed in large-scale attacks in July belies the significantly larger number of times security forces were able to prevent bombings. The military announced raids of several car bomb factories and seizure of dozens of weapons caches during July.
"Every time we're able to eliminate one cache or one car bomb factory, that's one that's not going to inflict the kinds of casualties we've seen," Garver said. "But we don't know how many there are until we find them."
Data on civilian deaths were provided by a Health Ministry official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.
Tallying the number of deaths in Iraq is difficult because the Iraqi government does not release official statistics and has refused to provide figures to U.N. human rights monitors. The process is made more challenging by the fact that many people whose relatives have died do not take them to a morgue, so they are not included in most counts.
The Reuters news agency reported Wednesday that 1,653 civilians were killed in July, a 35 percent increase over the previous month. However, data provided to The Post indicate that the civilian death toll declined 2 percent.
Garver said he could not provide any statistics on death tolls but added that the level of violence was "moving in the right direction."
"With any change in a trend you don't know if it's a temporary thing or a permanent thing," he said. "Most of these trends are not straight lines, they're roller coasters. There's a lot of cause to be optimistic, but it's certainly not any indication that we're done."
Garver acknowledged that the daily civilian death rate in Baghdad remains a challenge for the military.
"The level of violence is too high," he said. "We're going to have to keep working on that."
Separately, the U.S. military reported Saturday that its forces had killed the al-Qaeda in Iraq leader who masterminded the bombing that destroyed the twin minarets of the revered Shiite Golden Mosque in Samarra in June, the Reuters news agency reported. The military said Haitham al-Badri, the al-Qaeda leader in Salahuddin province, was killed by U.S. forces on Aug. 2.
Special correspondent Naseer Nouri, other Washington Post staff in Iraq and staff researcher Robert E. Thomason in Washington contributed to this report.