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Report: Iraq to stop counting civilian dead

Associated Press

BAGHDAD, Iraq Iraqi Health Ministry officials ordered a halt to a count of civilian casualties from the war and told workers not to release figures already compiled, the head of the ministry's statistics department told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

The health minister, Dr. Khodeir Abbas, denied that he or the U.S.-led occupation authority had anything to do with the order, and said he didn't even know about the survey of deaths, which number in the thousands.

Dr. Nagham Mohsen, the head of the ministry's statistics department, said the order came from the ministry's director of planning, Dr. Nazar Shabandar, who told her it was on behalf of Abbas. She said the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, which oversees the ministry, didn't like the idea of the count either.

"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 e-mail 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.

A spokesman for the CPA confirmed the authenticity of the e-mail, saying the occupation authority contacted the minister by phone and asked him to respond. The CPA didn't provide a phone number, and the minister didn't respond to e-mails requesting further comment.

The CPA spokesman said the coalition had no comment.

Shabandar's office said he was attending a conference in Egypt.

The U.S. military doesn't count civilian casualties from its wars, saying only that it tries to minimize civilian deaths.

Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, called that policy irresponsible.

"That deliberate ignorance of the past risks condemning the U.S. military to repeating its mistakes into the future and needlessly risking further civilian deaths," he said by telephone from New York.

Roth said the government doesn't count because "politically, it's embarrassing to talk about civilian casualties in one's war effort."

The Associated Press conducted a major investigation of Iraq's wartime civilian casualties, documenting 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, which was to be based on the records of all Iraq's hospitals, promised to be more complete.

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, ministry officials said then.

Many hospitals responded with statistics, Mohsen said, but last month Shabandar told her that Abbas wanted the count halted. He also told her not to release the 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, suggested such a study wouldn't be feasible.

"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.

In fact, the ministry didn't plan to distinguish between casualties caused by U.S. and Iraqi attacks. The AP survey didn't make the distinction either, instead counting all civilian deaths in the war.

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.

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. Saddam Hussein's regime fell April 9.

Iraqi civilians, too, have continued to die both in U.S. raids of suspected insurgent hideouts and in the rebels' attacks.

Rebels have struck at U.S. military convoys and installations, as well as at Iraqis - such as police officers, politicians and interpreters - who they consider to be collaborating with the coalition forces.

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.

(Niko Price is correspondent-at-large for The Associated Press.)


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