Though Numbers Unclear, Iraqi Deaths Touch Many

Four U.S. soldiers died in combat Iraq last month — the lowest figure since the invasion of March 2003.

According to the Baghdad government, 138 Iraqis died in January and that, too, is one of the lowest figures since 2003. Estimates of the number of Iraqis killed overall vary wildly, from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands.

And, in some cases, those numbers have been deliberately shrouded. Despite six years of conflict, it's still not known how many people have died in violence in Iraq.

On this particular day, women in a house south of Baghdad are crouched on the floor, enveloped in long black veils. Sitting in a circle, they look like ancient obsidian statues — the only sign of life their wails of grief.

Thirty people were killed in Yousifiyah and 110 were wounded last month when a relative of a tribal sheik hosting a reconciliation meeting there detonated an explosives belt he was wearing.

Kamila Abdullah lost her son, Jasim, in the blast.

"He was a young man. He left in the morning and he was laughing. They brought him back and he was dead," she says.

"Jasim, Jasim," she cries over and over, hitting the floor in her grief.

Invasion Triggered Bloody Onslaught

The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq unleashed a violent bloodletting in Iraq. While violence is dramatically down from the heights of the sectarian conflict two years ago, every day in Iraq people are still being killed.

"It's an unbelievable amount of death," says Sarah Leah Whitson, with New York-based Human Rights Watch. "I think that is why it's critically important for President Obama to make it a matter of first priority, a recognition of the pain and suffering the Iraqi people have endured as a result of the invasion of their country."

Iraqis have died at the hands of militias, insurgents, the U.S. military, foreign security contractors and criminals. There are studies and organizations that have tried to track civilian casualties in Iraq.

The Web site Iraq Body Count compiles its data from reports by the media and accounts from the Iraqi government and NGOs. It estimates that, at a minimum, just under 100,000 have died in Iraq since the 2003 invasion.

In 2006, a study published in the medical journal Lancet estimated that around 600,000 people had been killed up to that point.

There has been fierce debate about the conflicting figures and the methodologies used. But the fact is, no one will ever know exactly how many people have died in Iraq.

"When you are talking about numbers where there are over a half million dead, in a country where there has been intermittent electricity and barely functioning hospitals, it's just not feasible that there should be a list, or 100 percent-accurate list," Whitson says.

Apart from those challenges, there also has been a deliberate effort by the Iraqi government to downplay the death toll.

"By orders of minister's office, we cannot talk about the real numbers of deaths," says a man who works at the Baghdad central morgue statistics office, where all the deaths that take place in Baghdad get recorded. He doesn't want his name used because he's been told by his superiors at the Ministry of Health that he is not allowed to talk to the media. "That's been the case since 2004. When press comes to the morgue, they are taken to our boss's office and we have never been allowed to meet with them."

The reason, he says, is because the number of deaths the morgue registers never corresponds with numbers from the Ministry of Health or the Ministry of Interior.

"They do it on purpose," he says. "I would go home and look at the news. The ministry would say 10 people got killed all over Iraq, while I had received in that day more than 50 dead bodies just in Baghdad. It's always been like that — they would say one thingm but the reality was much worse."

Official Death Tolls At Odds

The U.S. military also has come under repeated criticism from human rights activists for what they call its failure to publicly acknowledge the number of civilian deaths in Iraq.

The military's "position seems to be to talk about it as little as possible, ... to release as little information as they can and to speak about the issue as few times as they can," says Josh Dougherty, a researcher with Iraq Body Count.

Dougherty estimates at least 20,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed during U.S. military operations.

The military and human rights groups often disagree over whether victims were civilians or insurgents.

Dougherty says Iraq Body Count will often rely on the local version of events.

"We use a method where the person who was in the best position to know the facts of the event is given preference," he says. "Whichever source was on the ground there at the time is sort of given preference over some vague official statement."

Rear Adm. Greg Smith, a senior U.S. military spokesman, defends the U.S. military record in Iraq: "Obviously, civilians are never the target of our operations. So, we look at everything we do with an eye toward making certain that we reduce that risk to the limits of our potential."

The U.S. military rarely releases information on civilian casualties here. Smith says that's because it's often difficult to ascertain what happened in the midst of a chaotic situation.

"I think it would rather be disingenuous to provide that information when it's not always complete and accurate to the best of our ability," he says.

Civilians Too Familiar With Violence

The least scientific but most powerful testimony to the many civilian casualties here is anecdotal.

Stop anyone on any street corner in almost in any part of Iraq, and they'll have a personal story of the violence.

Karim Ahmed, 39, breaks up planks of wood to feed a fire. He says that his younger brother was shot on the way back from praying at a mosque. And that three of his cousins were killed – and that another was kidnapped and is still missing.

At a bakery, Imad Kamel, 25, says he lost a friend and a cousin. They were working with the American forces, and one day as they left the U.S. base they were kidnapped and they've never been seen again.

Inside a small structure, the body of an old man is being washed before burial in the biggest cemetery in the world, in the southern city of Najaf. All Shiite Muslims aspire to be buried in this vast site.

A man reads passages from the Koran. The body is then wrapped in white cloth. Outside, the cemetery stretches off into the brown desert.

"Since the invasion, this cemetery has grown three times over," says undertaker Sadiq Zaher, 65. "The killing and slaughter increased and the cemetery is filled with the victims. ... Children, young men, women."

He points to a cluster of graves.

"Look over there — there are eight tombs painted one color," he says. "That's because they are all from the same family. A whole family were killed and buried here together."

Zaher stares out across the stone crypts and headstones. He says that before the war, no one was buried where he is standing now. Today, there is hardly enough room for new bodies.

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