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Exact Death Toll of Iraqis Remains Murky

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 catalogued 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.

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.

"The violence keeps getting worse," the morgue director said Feb. 28 by phone from Jordan, where he said he had fled recently for his own safety after he said he was under pressure to not report deaths. Freezers built to hold six bodies are sometimes crammed with 20 unclaimed corpses. "You can imagine what a mess it is," he said.

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

Many of the Baghdad morgue's bodies arrive from the emergency room at Yarmouk Hospital, where Dr. Osama Abdul Wahab said his staff occasionally had to deal with groups of two or three trauma patients before the invasion. Now they must cope with dozens of casualties at a time, he said.

"All of a sudden the doors of hell open and 40 injured patients arrive and you are alone," said Abdul Wahab, a 31-year-old neurologist.

Regardless of the lack of a precise figure on deaths, virtually all studies agree that among Iraqi government security forces, the police are at greater risk than the army. But it is Iraqi civilians who bear the brunt of the deaths.

According to the government's own count, twice as many Iraqi civilians — 4,024 — died last year in insurgency-related violence than police and soldiers.

Part of the reason for the high civilian death toll is that insurgents prefer to strike in the cities, especially Baghdad.

There is no way to verify the Iraqi government death figures independently, as is the case with most statistics in Iraq.

In a 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.

Further muddling the issue, some outside estimates of the dead include Iraqi insurgents, while others do not.

Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution who has closely followed the war's casualties, estimates 45,000 to 75,000 Iraqis have been killed, including insurgents and Iraqi soldiers.

O'Hanlon, who teaches a Columbia University course on estimating war casualties, called Bush's figure of 30,000 "on the lower end of the plausible range."

Iraq Body Count, a British anti-war group, put its tally of war dead at between 28,864 and 32,506 as of Feb. 26, but that doesn't include Iraqi soldiers or insurgents. It compiles its estimate of civilian deaths from news stories, corroborating each death through at least two reports.

But if Iraqi officials standardize tallies days later, news organizations have moved on to reporting other violence and may be unaware that early figures have been adjusted.

A United Nations survey conducted almost two years ago — before the deadliest guerrilla warfare began — said 24,000 Iraqi civilians and troops had been killed from the war's beginning in March 2003 through May 2004.

In late 2004, a study published in the Lancet medical journal estimated the war had caused some 98,000 civilian deaths. But the British government and others were skeptical of that finding, which was based on extrapolations from a small sample.

The question of who is to blame for the Iraqi deaths has long been controversial. Some critics argue that with the United States and its allies unable to maintain order, Iraq has become a deadlier place for civilians than it was under Saddam Hussein.

Johnson, the military spokesman, acknowledged that possibility, but said future generations would enjoy better lives because of Iraq's current hardships.

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."

Sarmad Ahmad al-Azami, a 35-year-old engineer, is an example.

His father died of a heart attack suffered during the U.S. bombing of a government palace next to his home in Baghdad. A year later, al-Azami's mother, 59, was killed in a car bombing.

"Our family has been devastated," al-Azami said. "Iraqis were living hard lives before this, but now things are much worse."