BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraq's Health Ministry has ordered a halt to a count of civilians killed during the war and told its statistics department not to release figures compiled so far, the official who oversaw the count told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
The health minister, Dr. Khodeir Abbas (search), denied in an email that he had anything to do with the order, saying he didn't even know about the study.
Dr. Nagham Mohsen, the head of the ministry's statistics department, said the order was relayed to her by the ministry's director of planning, Dr. Nazar Shabandar, who said it came on behalf of Abbas. She said the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (search), which oversees the ministry, also wanted the counting to stop.
"We have stopped the collection of this information because our minister didn't agree with it," she said, adding: "The CPA doesn't want this to be done."
Abbas, whose secretary said he was out of the country, sent an email denying the charge.
"I have no knowledge of a civilian war casualty survey even being started by the Ministry of Health, much less stopping it," he wrote. "The CPA did not direct me to stop any such survey either."
"Plain and simple, this is false information," he added.
Despite Abbas' comments, the health ministry's civilian death toll count had been reported by news media as early as August, and the count was widely anticipated by human rights organizations. The ministry issued a preliminary figure of 1,764 deaths during the summer.
Shabandar's office said he was attending a conference in Egypt and wouldn't return for two weeks. A spokesman for the CPA said it had nothing to add to Abbas' response, which came after the CPA reached him by telephone.
The U.S. and British militaries don't count civilian casualties from their wars, saying only that they try to minimize civilian deaths.
A major investigation of Iraq's wartime civilian casualties was compiled by The Associated Press, which documented the deaths of 3,240 civilians between March 20 and April 20. That investigation, conducted in May and June, surveyed about half of Iraq's hospitals, and reported that the real number of civilian deaths was sure to be much higher.
The Health Ministry's count, based on records of all hospitals, promised to be more complete.
Saddam Hussein's (search) regime fell April 9, and President Bush declared major combat operations over on May 1.
The ministry began its survey at the end of July, when shaky nationwide communication links began to improve. It sent letters to all hospitals and clinics in Iraq, asking them to send back details of civilians killed or wounded in the war.
Many hospitals responded with statistics, Mohsen said, but last month Shabander summoned her and told her that Abbas wanted the count halted. He also told her not to release the partial information she had already collected, she said.
"He told me, `You should move far away from this subject,"' Mohsen said. "I don't know why."
Abbas, the minister, said he had nothing to do with the order, and suggested the study wouldn't be feasible anyway.
"It would be almost impossible to conduct such a survey, because hospitals cannot distinguish between deaths that resulted from the coalition's efforts in the war, common crime among Iraqis, or deaths resulting from Saddam's brutal regime," he wrote.
Mohsen insisted that despite communications that remain poor and incomplete record-keeping by some hospitals, the statistics she received indicated that a significant count could have been completed.
"I could do it if the CPA and our minister agree that I can," she said in an interview in English.
Under Saddam's government, the ministry counted 1,196 civilian deaths during the war, but was forced to stop as U.S. and British forces overran southern Iraqi cities. Over the summer, the ministry compiled more figures that had been sent in previously, reaching a total of 1,764.
But officials said those numbers account for only a small number of the hospitals in Iraq, and none provided statistics through the end of the war.
The number of U.S. soldiers killed in the war is well documented. The Pentagon says 115 American military personnel were killed in combat from the start of the war to May 1, when President Bush declared major combat over, and 195 since.
Iraq kept meticulous records of its soldiers killed in action but never released them publicly. Military doctors have said the Iraqi military kept "perfect" records, but burned them as the war wound down.