BAGHDAD (AP) – Iraq's government has recorded 87,215 of its citizens killed since 2005 in violence ranging from catastrophic bombings to execution-style slayings, according to government statistics obtained by The Associated Press that break open one of the most closely guarded secrets of the war.
Combined with tallies based on hospital sources and media reports since the beginning of the war and an in-depth review of available evidence by The Associated Press, the figures show that more than 110,600 Iraqis have died in violence since the 2003 US-led invasion.
The number is a minimum count of violent deaths. The official who provided the data to the AP, on condition of anonymity because of its sensitivity, estimated the actual number of deaths at 10 to 20 percent higher because of thousands who are still missing and civilians who were buried in the chaos of war without official records.
The Health Ministry has tallied death certificates since 2005, and late that year the United Nations began using them — along with hospital and morgue figures — to publicly release casualty counts. But by early 2007, when sectarian violence was putting political pressure on the US and Iraqi governments, the Iraqi numbers disappeared. The United Nations "repeatedly asked for that cooperation" to resume but never received a response, UN associate spokesman Farhan Haq said Thursday.
The data obtained by the AP measure only violent deaths — people killed in attacks such as the shootings, bombings, mortar attacks and beheadings that have ravaged Iraq. It excluded indirect factors such as damage to infrastructure, health care and stress that caused thousands more to die.
Authoritative statistics for 2003 and 2004 do not exist. But Iraq Body Count, a private, British-based group, has tallied civilian deaths from media reports and other sources since the war's start. The AP reviewed the Iraq Body Count analysis and confirmed its conclusions by sifting the data and consulting experts. The AP also interviewed experts involved with previous studies, prominent Iraq analysts and provincial and medical officials to determine that the new tally was credible.
The AP also added its own tabulation of deaths since Feb. 28, the last date in the Health Ministry count.
The three figures add up to more than 110,600 Iraqis who have died in the war.
That total generally coincides with the trends reported by reputable surveys, which have been compiled either by tallying deaths reported by international journalists, or by surveying samplings of Iraqi households and extrapolating the numbers.
Iraq Body Count's estimate of deaths since the start of the war, excluding police and soldiers, is a range — between 91,466 and 99,861.
The numbers show just how traumatic the war has been for Iraq. In a nation of 29 million people, the deaths represent 0.38 percent of the population. Proportionally, that would be like the United States losing 1.2 million people to violence in the four-year period; about 17,000 people are murdered every year in the US.
Security has improved since the worst years, but almost every person in Iraq has been touched by the violence.
"We have lost everything," said Badriya Abbas Jabbar, 54. A 2007 truck bombing targeting a market near her Baghdad home killed three granddaughters, a son and a niece.
North of the capital in the city of Baqouba, a mother shrouded in black calls to her three sons from her doorstep. She calls out as if they were alive, but they were killed in April 2007, when Shiite Muslim militiamen barged into their auto parts store and gunned them down because they were Sunni.
The Health Ministry figures indicate such violence was tremendously deadly. Of the 87,215 deaths, 59,957 came in 2006 and 2007, when sectarian attacks soared and death squads roamed the streets. The period was marked by catastrophic bombings and execution-style killings.
Quantifying the loss has always been difficult. Records were not always compiled centrally, and the brutal insurgency sharply limited on-the-scene reporting. The US military never shared its data.
The Health Ministry was always at the forefront of counting deaths. Under Saddam Hussein, it compiled casualty figures even as US troops closed in on Baghdad, though it later abandoned that effort. It has started up again in fits, and finally began reliable record-keeping at the start of 2005.
Those data were provided to the AP in the form of a two-page computer printout listing yearly totals for death certificates issued for violent deaths by hospitals and morgues between Jan. 1, 2005, and Feb. 28, 2009.
The ministry does not have figures for the first two years of the war because it was devastated in the aftermath of the invasion, the official said.
Experts said the count constitutes an important baseline, albeit an incomplete one. Richard Brennan, who has done mortality research in Congo and Kosovo, said it is likely a "gross underestimate" because many deaths go unrecorded in war zones.
The Iraqi Body Count numbers are likely even more incomplete, given that many killings occurred in incidents journalists were unaware of or in inaccessible areas.
Mass graves have been turning up as improved security allows patrols in formerly off-limits areas, but how many remain will never be known.
The death toll in Iraq has been a hotly disputed subject because of the high political stakes in a war opposed by many countries and by a large portion of the American public. Critics on each side accuse the other of manipulating the death numbers to sway opinion.
While the Pentagon maintains meticulous records of the number of American troops killed — at least 4,276 as of Thursday — it does not publicly release comprehensive Iraqi casualty figures. American units around the country do compile figures, drawing them mostly from the Iraqi military. They are not released publicly but are used to determine trends, according to Lt. Col. Mark Ballesteros, a US spokesman in Baghdad.
The AP has filed Freedom of Information Act requests since 2005 seeking that data, but has not received it.
The US policy to not fully address civilian deaths has drawn heavy criticism from human rights groups.
"We believe that all warring parties have a duty to keep information on casualties," said Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch in New York. "It's one of many factors one needs to analyze compliance with international humanitarian law."
The AP has tried since the first days of the war to understand how many Iraqis were being killed.
In 2003, AP journalists traveled across Iraq to search hospital records for civilian deaths during the first chaotic month of the invasion. They found that at least 3,240 civilians died that month, including 1,896 in Baghdad, but acknowledged that number was a fraction of the total because record-keeping often fell victim to the bloodshed.
Beginning in May 2005, the AP has tracked war-related casualties as reported by police, hospital and government officials, mosque workers and verifiable witness accounts, breaking down the victims into civilians, soldiers and police. That tally has reached 46,065, including 37,205 civilians, but also underrepresents the true casualty number because many killings go unreported, especially in more remote areas.
Those numbers rose significantly on Thursday with two suicide attacks that killed dozens of people.
There are other clues to the death toll, such as the number of people buried at the main Shiite cemetery in the holy city of Najaf. But even there, the deaths are limited mostly to Shiites and include natural as well as violent causes, so they cannot be considered definitive.
The director of the cemetery's statistics office, Ammar al-Ithari, said the number of burials jumped from just over 32,000 in 2004 and 2005 to nearly 50,000 in 2006 and 54,000 in 2007. It fell to nearly 40,000 last year, as violence declined. There are no statistics from before the war because records were destroyed in the fighting.
The Iraqi official who provided the Health Ministry figures expressed confidence in its count. He said local authorities consistently reported on violence throughout the war, and that the ministry accurately compiled their reports.
He also defended death certificates as an instrument, because relatives need them to bury a body in most cemeteries, as well as for inheritance and compensation purposes.
He acknowledged some slain insurgents could be included in the count but said he believed that number was low because few insurgents went to hospitals for treatment out of fear of detection, and many insurgent groups buried their own fighters without getting death certificates.
Some experts say casualty tallies based on media reports are inaccurate, because too many deaths go unreported. Some favor cluster surveys, in which conclusions are drawn from a select sampling of households.
The largest cluster survey in Iraq was conducted in 2007 by the World Health Organization and the Iraqi government. It concluded that about 151,000 Iraqis had died from violence in the 2003-05 period, but that included insurgents.
A more controversial cluster study conducted between May and July 2006 by Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and Al-Mustansiriya University in Baghdad, published in the Lancet medical journal, estimated that 601,027 Iraqis had died due to violence. The authors said roughly 50,000 more died from nonviolent causes such as heart disease and cancer because of deteriorating health conditions caused by the war.
Critics argue that such surveys are flawed in Iraq because the security situation prevents a proper sampling. They also have margins of error that could skew the numbers by the tens of thousands.
And whatever the number, the ultimate goal is to find ways to reduce it in future conflicts.
"The loss of life among those caught up in conflict is tragic whatever the numbers reported," said Gilbert Burnham, one of authors of the Lancet survey. "And finding approaches which will reduce these deaths is of great importance."