Iraq to Stop Counting Civilian Dead
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Iraq to Stop Counting Civilian Dead
By Niko Price
Wednesday 10 December 2003
Iraqi Health Ministry officials ordered a halt to a 0acount of civilian casualties from the war and told workers not to release 0afigures already compiled, the head of the ministry's statistics department told 0aThe Associated Press on Wednesday.
The health minister, Dr. Khodeir Abbas, denied that 0ahe or the U.S.-led occupation authority had anything to do with the order, and 0asaid he didn't even know about the survey of deaths, which number in the 0athousands.
Dr. Nagham Mohsen, the head of the ministry's 0astatistics department, said the order came from the ministry's director of 0aplanning, Dr. Nazar Shabandar, who told her it was on behalf of Abbas. She said 0athe U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, which oversees the ministry, 0adidn't like the idea of the count either.
"We have stopped the collection of this information 0abecause our minister didn't agree with it," she said, adding: "The CPA doesn't 0awant this to be done."
Abbas, whose secretary said he was out of the 0acountry, sent an e-mail denying the charge.
"I have no knowledge of a civilian war casualty 0asurvey even being started by the Ministry of Health, much less stopping it," he 0awrote. "The CPA did not direct me to stop any such survey either."
"Plain and simple, this is false information," he 0aadded.
Despite Abbas' comments, the Health Ministry's 0acivilian death toll count had been reported by news media as early as August, 0aand the count was widely anticipated by human rights organizations. The ministry 0aissued a preliminary figure of 1,764 deaths during the summer.
A spokesman for the CPA confirmed the authenticity 0aof the e-mail, saying the occupation authority contacted the minister by phone 0aand asked him to respond. The CPA didn't provide a phone number, and the 0aminister didn't respond to e-mails requesting further comment.
The CPA spokesman said the coalition had no comment.
Shabandar's office said he was attending a 0aconference in Egypt.
The U.S. military doesn't count civilian casualties 0afrom its wars, saying only that it tries to minimize civilian deaths.
Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights 0aWatch, called that policy irresponsible.
"That deliberate ignorance of the past risks 0acondemning the U.S. military to repeating its mistakes into the future and 0aneedlessly risking further civilian deaths," he said by telephone from New York.
Roth said the government doesn't count because "politically, it's embarrassing to talk about civilian casualties in one's war 0aeffort."
The Associated Press conducted a major investigation 0aof Iraq's wartime civilian casualties, documenting the deaths of 3,240 civilians 0abetween March 20 and April 20. That investigation, conducted in May and June, 0asurveyed about half of Iraq's hospitals, and reported that the real number of 0acivilian deaths was sure to be much higher.
The Health Ministry's count, which was to be based 0aon the records of all Iraq's hospitals, promised to be more complete.
The ministry began its survey at the end of July, 0awhen shaky nationwide communication links began to improve. It sent letters to 0aall hospitals and clinics in Iraq, asking them to send back details of civilians 0akilled or wounded in the war, ministry officials said then.
Many hospitals responded with statistics, Mohsen 0asaid, but last month Shabandar told her that Abbas wanted the count halted. He 0aalso told her not to release the information she had already collected, she 0asaid.
"He told me, `You should move far away from this 0asubject,'" Mohsen said. "I don't know why."
Abbas, the minister, suggested such a study wouldn't 0abe feasible.
"It would be almost impossible to conduct such a 0asurvey, because hospitals cannot distinguish between deaths that resulted from 0athe coalition's efforts in the war, common crime among Iraqis, or deaths 0aresulting from Saddam's brutal regime," he wrote.
In fact, the ministry didn't plan to distinguish 0abetween casualties caused by U.S. and Iraqi attacks. The AP survey didn't make 0athe distinction either, instead counting all civilian deaths in the war.
Mohsen insisted that despite communications that 0aremain poor and incomplete record-keeping by some hospitals, the statistics she 0areceived indicated that a significant count could have been completed.
"I could do it if the CPA and our minister agree 0athat I can," she said in an interview in English.
The number of U.S. soldiers killed in the war is 0awell documented. The Pentagon says 115 American military personnel were killed 0ain combat from the start of the war to May 1, when President Bush declared major 0acombat over, and 195 since. Saddam Hussein's regime fell April 9.
Iraqi civilians, too, have continued to die both in 0aU.S. raids of suspected insurgent hideouts and in the rebels' attacks.
Rebels have struck at U.S. military convoys and 0ainstallations, as well as at Iraqis such as police officers, politicians and 0ainterpreters who they consider to be collaborating with the coalition forces.
Iraq kept meticulous records of its soldiers killed 0ain action but never released them publicly. Military doctors have said the Iraqi 0amilitary kept "perfect" records, but burned them as the war wound down.
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