Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Iraq civilian deaths hit new record -ministry

By Alastair Macdonald

BAGHDAD, Jan 2 (Reuters) - The number of Iraqi civilians killed in political violence edged to a new record high in December after a big leap the previous month, data from Interior Ministry officials showed on Tuesday.

The statistics, widely viewed as an indicative but only partial record of violent deaths, showed 12,320 civilians were killed in 2006 in what officials classified as "terrorist" violence -- half of them in the last four months.

The ministry figure of 1,930 civilian deaths in December is three and a half times the figure of 548 for January, before the surge in sectarian killing which followed the destruction of a major Shi'ite shrine in February.

All such statistics are controversial in Iraq. A figure of 3,700 civilian deaths in October, the latest tally given by the United Nations based on data from the Health Ministry and the Baghdad morgue, was branded exaggerated by the Iraqi government.

The U.N. figure indicates about 120 civilians died each day.

Clearly frustrated at its inability to rein in violence that is partly blamed on militia death squads nominally loyal to parties in power, the government has stopped publishing its own figures and has barred its officials from giving out such data.

However, the statistics from Interior Ministry sources, which Reuters has been tracking since January, appear to reflect trends consistent with official comments from the government and from the U.S. military, which also gives out no such numbers.

An Interior Ministry official told Reuters on Tuesday the December figure, up from 1,850 violent civilian deaths in November, included people killed in bombings and shootings but not deaths classed as "criminal".

The tally in October was 1,289.

In December, police, medical and other officials told Reuters reporters of the deaths of 1,571 Iraqi civilians, compared to 1,706 in November and 1,178 in October.

Since the chaos in Iraq makes consistent reporting impossible, those tallies are approximate and certain to be an underestimate. They include no deaths among the many civilians wounded in attacks who may die later from wounds. Nor do they include many people kidnapped whose fate remains unknown.

The Interior Ministry said 125 police officers and 25 Iraqi soldiers were killed in December, similar totals to November and October. U.S. military reports show 112 American soldiers were killed in December, the deadliest month for them in two years.

Just before New Year, the total U.S. death toll since the invasion of March 2003 passed the 3,000 mark.

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