Iraqi Leaders Try to Hold Down the Death Rate

A Johns Hopkins report states that the number of Iraqi deaths since 2003 may have exceeded 600,000. The study averages violent deaths to 15,000 per month, four times higher than the number of deaths counted in July by the Iraqi government. Iraq's leaders say they are trying to stem the death toll. Michele Norris talks with Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq Barham Salih.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Joining us now from Baghdad to talk about the casualty report is Barham Salih, the deputy prime minister of Iraq. Mr. Salih, President Bush today said the report is not credible and he says Iraqi leaders feel the same. Do you think this is a credible report? Do you believe these numbers?

Mr. BARHAM SALIH (Deputy Prime Minister): I don't believe those numbers. They are wild exaggerations and this is perhaps a statement about how statistics could be manipulated the way that some people want it. This is not to say that the situation in Iraq is easy. Every civilian casualty is one too many. But the figures reported in the report are far, far off the mark.

NORRIS: Could you provide us any sense of what might be a more accurate number?

Mr. SALIH: Of course, there are both the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of the Interior. They do keep count of casualties a day in different incidents. Perhaps we as a government need to do a better job to putting out figures as they are the facts for the international community and for the Iraqi public to know.

But to have one single figure that will put all together, I don't have that figure before me, but I think it can be done. It's not an impossible task. I think it's a matter of putting people to compiling and presenting it the right way.

NORRIS: I just want to make sure I understand. You're saying that this number that's cited in this report is - you believe to be a wild exaggeration, but you're not offering another number in its place.

Mr. SALIH: I'm just saying we have witnessed an escalation in violence since the attack on the shrines a few months back and at worst, we have had daily casualties, (unintelligible) 100. That was the worst cases that we had dealt with. Even if we were to use that figure to a base and to extrapolate, it will never get anywhere near that figure.

But please, I don't want to be in a position to say that the figure is 50,000 or 100,000 and that makes it any better. For me, as a citizen of this country, as a human being, I much feel very sorry for every human life lost. But these types of exaggerations really take away from the reality of life in this country.

NORRIS: Now despite the quarrel over the numbers, I think all would agree that a huge number of innocent civilians have lost their lives. What can be done to stop the sectarian violence in Iraq right now?

Mr. SALIH: Well, this is the real question. Iraq is going through a very tough transition. We do have sectarian polarization in this society, but we also are battling this evil of international terrorism. There is little we can do about international terrorism beyond building our political process, building Iraqi consensus in the face of terrorists and developing our security organizations with the help of the international community.

I cannot say that things will necessarily improve in Iraq in the short order, but Iraqis have no choice but to salvage their country and develop our political process, democratic process, because that is the only answer that we have for bringing about stability and tranquility to our country.

NORRIS: Whose specific responsibility is it to bring this situation under control?

Mr. SALIH: Iraqis. No foreign power can deliver for us. It is up to the Iraqi people, up to the Iraqi leadership, to solve the situation. But we need sustained support from the international community. We need sustained support from the United States of America, but at the end of the day, it is an Iraqi responsibility and an Iraqi responsibility alone.

NORRIS: In this country, we repeatedly hear President Bush say that Iraqis are better off today than they were under Saddam Hussein. Would Iraqis agree with that statement, given the current escalation in violence?

Mr. SALIH: I really think, for any Iraqi when asked that question, really is perplexing. Very few people, if any, think of Saddam Hussein's times to have been better. I agree that transition has been tough, is tough. I agree that too many civilian lives and too many innocent lives have been lost, but our problems of today are utterly insignificant compared to what we had to endure under Saddam Hussein.

This is a terrible price, a difficult price, that we have to pay for our freedom and for our democracy in our transition, but it is a price, I'm afraid, apparently we have to pay.

NORRIS: Barham Salih is the deputy prime minister of Iraq. Mr. Salih, thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. SALIH: Thank you, ma'am.

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