August Death Toll in Baghdad No Less Than July's Despite Lower Claims

Baghdad recorded more than 1,500 violent deaths in August, according to final figures released by the Health Ministry this week — nearly three times the preliminary figure the same ministry had released last week. The figure is a sharp contradiction of U.S. and Iraqi claims that a security crackdown led to a steep drop in deaths in the capital.

Instead, the number of deaths in the capital in August was roughly the same as during July, before the U.S.-led security crackdown began, the Health Ministry officials said.

They could provide no explanation for the discrepancy, but it could have resulted in part from a late August surge in deaths. More than 250 people were killed in Baghdad in the final week of August.

The discrepancy also highlights the fact that after more than three years of war, Iraqi officials still have no reliable system for counting casualties — leaving death tolls uncertain and varying sharply and with no explanation even within one ministry.

Deputy Health Minister Hakem al-Zamly this week put the August violent death count for Baghdad at 1,536, based on figures from the city morgue. That is roughly the same as the figure for July for Baghdad provided by the same ministry.

Preliminary Health Ministry figures released last week, though, showed violent deaths in August in Baghdad at just 550 to that point, according to Dr. Riad Abdul Amir of the Health Ministry's statistics bureau, whom the Associated Press and other media quoted then.

There was no way to explain the discrepancy, Health Ministry officials said this week when contacted by the AP.

The late August surge in violence in Baghdad clearly played some role.

More broadly, however, accurate figures are difficult to obtain in a country where government institutions barely function. Poor phone lines and shortages of trained staff and computers can result in delays in entering death reports into ministry databases, which means the preliminary count may have lagged sharply.

Accurate figures are important because Iraqi and U.S. officials — anxious to demonstrate progress as support for the war declines in the U.S. — have used death figures to claim that a security crackdown in Baghdad is working.

Last month, U.S. military spokesman Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell said the murder rate in Baghdad fell by 46 percent from July to August.

Iraqi National Security Adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie insisted last week that execution-style killings and sectarian violence had dropped by 45 percent in the last six weeks.

However, the August figure of 1,536 violent deaths in Baghdad is roughly the same as the roughly 1,500 reported by the Health Ministry in July for Baghdad.

Accurate figures on the number of people who have died since the Iraq conflict began in March 2003 have long been difficult to obtain. The Health Ministry, which tallies civilian deaths, relies on reports from government hospitals and morgues.