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UN Reports That Iraq Death Toll Topped 34,000 in 2006

By Sabrina Tavernise
THE NEW YORK TIMES


BAGHDAD

The United Nations reported on Tuesday that more than 34,000 Iraqis were killed in violence last year, a figure that represents the first comprehensive annual count of civilian deaths and a vivid measure of the failure of the Iraqi government and American military to provide security.

The report was the first attempt at hand-counting individual deaths for an entire year. It was compiled using reports from morgues, hospitals and municipal authorities across Iraq, and was nearly three times higher than an estimate for 2006 compiled from Iraqi ministry tallies by The Associated Press earlier this month.

Numbers of civilian deaths have become the central indicator for the trajectory of the war, and are extremely sensitive for both Iraqi and American officials. Both follow the tallies, but neither will release them.

An Iraqi government spokesman called the count exaggerated, and said that it had been obtained using “incorrect sources.” Though the government closely tracks deaths through the Interior and Health ministries, he said it did not have a system in place for compiling a comprehensive figure.

Despite the criticism from the Iraqi government, the United Nations said it used all official sources, most of which relied on counts of death certificates. The vast majority of Iraqi deaths are reported, at least to local authorities, so that Iraqis can prove inheritance and receive government compensation. Some deaths still go unreported, however, and the U.N. tally may in fact be lower than the true number of deaths nationwide.

As death tolls have risen, the lack of security has become the single most important barrier to success of the American enterprise here. The numbers of dead, at least at the Baghdad morgue, are running at double their number in 2005.

Underscoring the challenge, even as the United Nations released its figure — 34,452 deaths in all — at least 70 more Iraqis were killed on Tuesday when a series of bomb blasts struck a largely Shiite university in northeast Baghdad.

Violence between Sunnis and Shiites, virtually unheard of in the early years of the war, has become the all-consuming driver of the conflict here.

Military commanders have acknowledged that they underestimated the seriousness of the sectarian killings, which took off across the capital after the bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra drew Shiites into the war. Before that, Sunni militants did most of the killing. Now, the capital is mired in violence, as the two groups fight bitterly over territory.

In the shootings, bodies surface days later in sewers and garbage dumps. The report said that most unidentified bodies were found in six neighborhoods of Baghdad, three Sunni — Dora, Rashidiya and Adhamiya — and three Shiite — Sadr City, New Baghdad and the hardscrabble slum of Shuala.

“It’s important to identify the root cause of the violence,” said Gianni Magazzeni, chief of the U.N. Assistance Mission to Iraq’s Human Rights Office, which compiled the report. “Lack of accountability for crimes generates the urge for justice through armed groups.”