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Iraqis suffer a deadly toll

There is no official count of civilian deaths, but it's certain that violence has killed tens of thousands of Iraqis in three years.

By wire services
Published March 11, 2006

BAGHDAD - Three years into the war, one grim measure of its impact on Iraqis can be seen at Baghdad's morgue: There, the staff has photographed and cataloged more than 24,000 bodies from the Baghdad area alone since 2003, almost all killed in violence.

Despite such snapshots, the overall number of Iraqi civilians and soldiers killed since the U.S.-led invasion in spring 2003 remains murky. Bloodshed has worsened each year, pushing the Iraqi death toll into the tens of thousands. But no one knows the exact toll.

President Bush has said he thinks violence claimed at least 30,000 Iraqi dead as of December, while some researchers have cited numbers of 50,000, 75,000 or beyond.

The Pentagon has carefully counted the number of American military dead - now more than 2,300 - but declines to release its tally of Iraqi civilian or insurgent deaths.

The health ministry estimates 1,093 civilians died in the first two months of this year, nearly a quarter of the deaths government ministries reported in all of 2005. The Iraqi government, however, has swung wildly in its casualty estimates, leading many to view its figures with skepticism.

Baghdad, which has a fifth of Iraq's 25-million inhabitants, has been a center of the violence, with insurgent attacks and sectarian tensions both high here.

At the Baghdad morgue, more than 10,000 corpses were delivered in 2005, up from more than 8,000 in 2004 and about 6,000 in 2003, said the morgue's director, Dr. Faik Baker. All were corpses from either suspicious deaths or violent or war-related deaths - things like car bombs and gunshot wounds, tribal reprisals or crime - and not from natural causes.

By contrast, the morgue recorded fewer than 3,000 violent or suspicious deaths in 2002, before the war, Baker said. The tally at the Baghdad morgue alone - one of several mortuaries in Iraq - thus exceeds figures from Iraqi government ministries that say 7,429 Iraqis were killed across all of Iraq in 2005.

Baker recently fled the country for Jordan, saying he was under pressure to not report deaths.

In the dangerous country as large as California, journalists and academics rely on figures provided by police, hospitals, the U.S. military and the Interior Ministry. But reports on casualties from major attacks often vary widely. And if Iraqi officials standardize tallies later, news organizations that have moved on to other violence may be unaware that early figures have been adjusted.

Rand Corp. military analyst James Dobbins, a former Bush administration envoy to Afghanistan, is among those who believe the United States bears some responsibility for the Iraqi dead, even if insurgents actually cause most of the deaths.

"The U.S. has never been able to protect the population and has thus never won its confidence and secured its support," Dobbins said.

The Middle East Institute's Wayne White, who headed the State Department's Iraq intelligence team until last year, adds that regardless of whether Americans believe they should be blamed for these casualties, "many, many Iraqis hold the U.S. responsible for all of them."

[Last modified March 11, 2006, 01:43:19]

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