Iraqi data suggests civilian deaths still rising

By Alastair Macdonald Wed Nov 1, 9:58 AM ET

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The number of Iraqi civilians killed in violence may have jumped to another record high in October, data from the Iraqi government indicated on Wednesday.

Statistics issued by the Interior Ministry for Iraqis killed in political violence put civilian deaths last month at 1,289, nearly 42 a day and up 18 percent from the 1,089 seen in September, itself a record for this particular series of data.

Bloodshed intensified in the holy month of Ramadan, which ended last week, as rival Shi'ite and Sunni Muslim communities vied for power in a continuing cycle of sectarian reprisals.

Such figures have become increasingly controversial, notably since the
United Nations put the monthly civilian toll at over 3,000 this summer and a group of medical statisticians estimated that over 650,000 may have died since the U.S. invasion of 2003.

U.S. officials, mindful that dismay over violence in
Iraq could cost
President George W. Bush's Republicans control of Congress in elections on Tuesday, question the U.N. estimate.

Bush and Iraq's prime minister dismissed the statisticians' survey in the medical journal The Lancet last month.

Calls for a U.S. troop withdrawal have also strengthened with the deaths of 104 U.S. soldiers in Iraq in October, the bloodiest month for Americans in nearly two years.

Evidence of civilian casualties is scarce and collecting data fraught with danger. The Iraqi government has also tightened rules to prevent officials outside the prime minister's office releasing figures.

Reuters typically reports between a dozen and several dozen killings a day in Iraq, most of them of civilians.

The Interior Ministry data is a nationwide compilation of reports from its officials as well as the Defense and Health ministries, the official who provides the statistics said.

It does not include all violent deaths but those judged the result of political, sectarian or ethnic killings, as opposed to criminal murder, the Interior Ministry official added. He would give no further detail on how the distinctions are drawn.

The figures also showed 139 Iraqi soldiers and police were killed in October -- substantially fewer than the more than 300 that the U.S. military commander in Iraq said were killed in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which ended a week ago.


Nonetheless, the Interior Ministry figures have matched trends reported by other officials, both Iraqi and U.S., this year -- notably a sharp increase in killings after the bombing of a Shi'ite shrine in February and a decline in deaths at the start of a major military operation in Baghdad in August.

The Interior Ministry said 582 civilians were killed in political violence in January, rising to 782 in March. It said 889 died in June, 1,065 in July and 769 in August.

Officials at Baghdad morgue, which has routinely taken in over 1,000 bodies a month this year, many suffering from gunshot and torture wounds, say they have been told not to release data.

The United Nations said it was told last month the Health Ministry would no longer provide it with figures and that these would, instead, be controlled and issued by the office of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. It released no figures for September.

Some analysts have questioned the use of Health Ministry data on the grounds that the institution is controlled by the political movement of Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose Mehdi Army militia denies accusations of running death squads.