U.N. Says Iraq Seals Data on the Civilian Toll

By WARREN HOGE

New York Times

October 20, 2006

UNITED NATIONS, Oct. 20 — The United Nations office in Baghdad says that Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, has ordered the country’s medical authorities to stop providing the organization with monthly figures on the number of civilians killed and wounded in the conflict there, according to a confidential cable.

The cable, dated Oct. 17 and sent to United Nations officials in New York and Geneva by Ashraf Qazi, the United Nations envoy to Iraq, says the prohibition may hinder the ability of his office to give accurate accounts in its bimonthly human rights reports on the levels of violence and the effect on Iraqi society.

Concern over the numbers of civilians who have died in Iraq has risen sharply at a time when organized attacks by insurgents are swelling the numbers of victims and when a new report from a team of Iraqi and American researchers shows that more than 600,000 civilians have died in violence across Iraq since the 2003 American invasion.

Mr. Qazi, a former Pakistani diplomat, says that the order to let the prime minister’s office take over the release of the numbers came down a day after a United Nations report for July and August showed a serious upward spike in the number of dead and wounded. The leader of the Health Ministry in Iraq appealed to be allowed to continue supplying the figures to the United Nations but was turned down according to a subsequent letter from the prime minister’s office, Mr. Qazi’s cable said.

The existence of the cable was reported Friday by The Washington Post.

Feisal al-Istrabadi, Iraq’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, said he had not seen the cable and therefore could not comment on its specifics. “But what I can say is what the prime minister is aiming for is to have one voice reflecting accurate information about the statistics of those who are dying every day,” he said. “So, the concern was that the Ministry of Health, which has had accurate figures to date, be the official source of the information.

“It is trying to avoid a situation where different agencies, which may have different perspectives, put out sets of numbers that are, in fact, not as accurate as they should be.”

The most recent United Nations report, published in September, showed that 3,590 people were killed in July and 3,009 in August in violence across the country. Compiled by statistics from Baghdad’s central morgue and from hospitals and morgues countrywide, the report posited an average death rate of 97 people per day.

The United Nations reports have been cited by independent researchers as reliable indicators of the incidence of violence in Iraq and were not disputed by the Iraqi government until the September report that showed sharp rises in the figures.

In his cable, Mr. Qazi described a process by which his office tried to compile the most reliable statistics.

He said that initially his office had been able to overcome Iraqi government reluctance to release figures by obtaining statistics from the Health Ministry’s Medico-Legal Institute in Baghdad.

The institute records the number of unidentified civilians killed violently whose bodies are taken to the morgue in Baghdad, but not those killed violently whose bodies are taken to hospitals and later handed over to families for burial. Therefore, Mr. Qazi said, the institute’s figures represented only “an indicator, albeit imperfect, of the growing number of civilian victims in the capital.”

To come up with a more thorough account, Mr. Qazi said, the United Nations combined the institute’s findings with figures from the Department of Operations at the Ministry of Health, which records those killed or wounded as a result of violence from hospitals across almost all parts of the country.

Mr. Qazi noted that the figures “may have contributed to an increased international awareness regarding the severe consequences that the conflict in Iraq is having on civilians.”

The cable said that following the release of the last United Nations human rights report on Sept. 20, the prime minister’s office “expressed doubts” about its accuracy.

The next day, the Ministry of Health was told that it should no longer release its figures but instead channel them through the prime minister’s office. Mr. Qazi said he learned of this on Oct. 12.

Mr. Qazi said the United Nations would continue to seek figures from the Department of Operations at the Ministry of Health and “use our contacts to see what measure of verification may be possible.”