Nafee Abdul Rahman/AFP/Getty Images
A U.S. soldier stands guard at the scene of a twin bombing in Baghdad on Nov. 10, 2008.
A U.S. soldier stands guard at the scene of a twin bombing in Baghdad on Nov. 10, 2008. Nafee Abdul Rahman/AFP/Getty Images
In Iraq, there's been an upsurge in violence in the past 10 days or so, mainly in the form of bombing attacks on police patrols and civilians.
But it's difficult to gauge how serious the upsurge may be, because U.S. and Iraqi sources give widely differing reports of the casualties.
After a multiple bomb attack on Monday, Iraqi sources said there were at least 28 dead. American military officials put the death toll at five.
The attack in Baghdad's Kasra neighborhood was horrendous by any standard: A car bomb struck a busy street at morning rush hour.
Shortly afterward, as people rushed to help the wounded, two smaller explosions took place, adding to the carnage.
Karam Ali Dhari, an 18-year-old student, said he wasn't present during the actual bombing, but that he rushed to the area immediately after it happened.
"I saw many casualties, including a bus with girl students," he said. They were secondary schoolgirls — maybe only three or four of them survived; those who made it lost either hands or legs."
Video taken by the U.S.-supported al-Hurra television showed the bus, its windows blasted out. The blood-spattered floor of the bus was strewn with girls' shoes and sandals.
Dhari said he thinks the death toll was high. "About 25 to 27 killed. There were 13 girl students — the rest were passersby or people in the restaurants."
But Dhari also referred to the numbers he later heard on television, which ranged from 28 to 31 dead, with nearly 70 wounded. It's not clear whether his impression has been influenced by news reports.
The day after the explosion, NPR reporters were forcefully barred from interviewing people on the street by an Iraqi army unit, which was maintaining tight security at the site.
The captain in charge of the unit said there were two car bombs, one parked and one driven by a suicide attacker. Although he said the suicide bomb went off very close to the girls' bus, the Iraqi officer said that only 5 people were killed and around 40 injured.
That comports with the numbers given by American military officials, who say there was a U.S. patrol at the scene almost immediately after the blasts.
"The overall casualty count was five civilians killed and 37 wounded," said Lt. Col. Steve Stover, the public affairs officer for the Multinational Division in Baghdad. "That number was verified with the civilians as well as the first responders as well as with the Iraqi security forces on the ground."
Stover said U.S. patrols and the explosive experts who investigate such bombings are trained to report on them carefully, as crime scenes.
He also said that American forces have no reason to fudge the numbers.
A source at the Ministry of Interior, which controls Iraq's police, says U.S. and Iraqi military forces do have a reason to downplay casualties, especially in areas where they have a big presence.
"When an area like that suffers a big explosion, there's no way they'll give you correct casualty figures, because it shows that the people in charge aren't doing their jobs," he said.
The source, who wanted to remain anonymous because he's not officially authorized to release casualty figures, put the death toll at at least 28.
But the police casualty figures aren't supported by reports from local hospitals.
Dr. Ziyad Tariq Abbas is the chief surgeon at al-Nu'man hospital, which is closest to the blast site. "We received around 12 injured people — all of them are male," he said. "One of them was dead, and one was severely injured in the head area."
Abbas says that all the patients were suffering from shock and that none was able to give a clear description of what had happened during the attack.
A spokesman for Baghdad's Medical City complex, which is also close to the scene of the attack, said his hospital received only one dead body and treated seven wounded people.
There's wide speculation as to why the casualty figures vary so greatly.
Some say numbers are exaggerated in an effort to discredit the government's claims that it's providing better security at a time when Iraq and the U.S. are trying to conclude a security agreement specifying how long U.S. troops can remain in Iraq.
Others say the government is low-balling the numbers to convince Iraqis that it has security under control in order to garner votes as Iraq prepares for provincial elections at the end of January.
Uncertain casualty figures make it hard for either side to make its case.