BAGHDAD – The United Nations said Wednesday that 3,709 Iraqi civilians were killed in October, the highest monthly toll since the March 2003 U.S. invasion and another sign of the severity of Iraq's sectarian bloodbath.
The U.N. tally was more than three times higher than the total The Associated Press had tabulated for the month, and far more than the 2,866 U.S. service members who have died during all of the war.
The report on civilian casualties, handed out at a U.N. news conference in Baghdad, said the influence of militias was growing, and torture continued to be rampant, despite the government's vow to address human rights abuses.
"Hundreds of bodies continued to appear in different areas of Baghdad handcuffed, blindfolded and bearing signs of torture and execution-style killing," the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq report said. "Many witnesses reported that perpetrators wear militia attire and even police or army uniforms."
The report painted a grim picture across the board, from attacks on journalists, judges and lawyers and the worsening situation of women to displacement, violence against religious minorities and the targeting of schools.
Based on figures from the Iraqi Health Ministry, the country's hospitals and the Medico-Legal Institute in Baghdad, the report said October's figure was higher than July's previously unprecedented civilian death toll of 3,590.
"I think the type of violence is different in the past few months," Gianni Magazzeni, the UNAMI chief in Baghdad, told the news conference. "There was a great increase in sectarian violence in activities by terrorists and insurgents, but also by militias and criminal gangs."
He said "this phenomenon" has been typical since Sunni-Arab insurgents bombed a major Shiite shrine on Feb. 22 in Samarra, north of Baghdad.
UNAMI's Human Rights Office continued to receive reports that Iraqi police and security forces are either infiltrated or act in collusion with militias, the report said.
It said that while sectarian violence is the main cause of the civilian killings, Iraqis also continue to be the victims of terrorist acts, roadside bombs, drive-by shootings, crossfire between rival gangs, or between police and insurgents, kidnappings, military operations, crime and police abuse.
Asked about the U.N. report, government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh called it "inaccurate and exaggerated" because "it is not based on official government reports."
When asked if there is a government report, al-Dabbagh said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press that one "is not available yet but it will be published later."
Access to the U.N. news conference in the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad was blocked for many because the main entrance was closed as U.S. forces were checking for unexploded ordnance in the area, a U.S. military official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.
On Tuesday, a car bomb attack inside the Green Zone apparently attempted to kill Iraq's controversial speaker of parliament. The small bomb exploded in the back of an armored car in the motorcade of the Sunni speaker, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, as it was being driven into a parking lot near the Green Zone's convention center, where al-Mashhadani and other Iraqi legislators were meeting, a parliamentary aide said.
The driver, an American security guard, was slightly wounded. He got out of the vehicle and found other explosive devices planted beneath it, the aide said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The driver called U.S. soldiers who brought dogs to the scene that detected explosives in another vehicle in the area belonging to al-Mashhadani's motorcade, said Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, a U.S. military spokesman.
Bomb specialists detonated that car, which set off a series of blasts that caused a fire but injured no one and caused no major damage to nearby structures, Garver said. The blaze was put out by the Green Zone's fire department.
"Obviously, we take security very seriously so we are investigating this incident," Garver said.
The serious security breach in the Green Zone — which houses the Iraqi government, the U.S. and British embassies and thousands of foreign troops and private contractors — forced the Iraqi legislators to stay inside the convention center for several hours until the fire was put out and the area found to be safe, the aide said.
"We strongly condemn this act," Ammar Wajih, the chief spokesman for the Iraqi Islamic Party, the largest Sunni-Arab part in Iraq, told the AP. "To plant a bomb in a heavily guarded place near the parliament building is a big security breach because few authorized persons can enter this area. The aim of this act is to hamper the political process."
In other developments:
— President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced they will meet Nov. 29-30 in Jordan to discuss the deteriorating security situation in Iraq. "We will focus our discussions on current developments in Iraq, progress made to date in the deliberations of a high-level joint committee on transferring security responsibilities, and the role of the region in supporting Iraq," they said in a statement.
— At least 13 Iraqis were killed and six were wounded in attacks by suspected insurgents using drive-by shootings and bombings in Baghdad and other areas of Iraq, police said. Coalition forces also said they detained 59 suspected insurgents during raids in Baghdad, Fallujah and south of the capital in the past few days.
— Raad Jaafar Hamadi, an Iraqi journalist working for the state-run al-Sabah newspaper in Baghdad, was killed in a drive-by shooting, police said. The slaying raised to at least 92 the number of journalists killed in Iraq since the war began. Thirty-six other media employees — including drivers, interpreters and guards — also have been killed, all of them Iraqi except one Lebanese.
— A U.S. soldier died of a non-hostile injuries north of Baghdad on Tuesday, raising to at least 2,866 the number of U.S. servicemen who have died since the beginning of the war. So far this month, 48 American service members have died.
Al-Mashhadani, a hard-line Sunni Arab nationalist reviled by many Shiites, was the fourth high-ranking Iraqi government official to be targeted by assailants in recent days.
Last summer, Shiite and Kurdish parties tried unsuccessfully to oust him as parliament speaker after his comments about the insurgency and regional self-rule angered and embarrassed key political groups. He called the U.S. occupation of Iraq "the work of butchers."
On Nov. 1, al-Mashhadani had to be physically restrained from attacking a Sunni lawmaker. The speaker had been holding a nationally televised news conference when he lashed out at the legislator, Abdel-Karim al-Samarie, for alleged corruption and failure to attend sessions, calling him a "dog" — a deep insult in Iraq and other Arab societies.