updated 9/12/2006 2:57:55 PM ET 2006-09-12T18:57:55

The American military did not count people killed by bombs, mortars, rockets or other mass attacks including suicide bombings when it reported a dramatic drop in the number of murders in the Baghdad area last month, the U.S. command said Monday.

The decision to include only victims of drive-by shootings and those killed by torture and execution, usually at the hands of death squads, allowed U.S. officials to argue that a security crackdown that began in the capital Aug. 7 had more than halved the city's murder rate.

But the types of slayings, including suicide bombings, that the U.S. excluded from the category of "murder" were not made explicit at the time. That led to confusion after Iraqi Health Ministry figures showed that 1,536 people died violently in and around Baghdad in August, nearly the same number as in July.

The figures raise serious questions about the success of the security operation launched by the U.S.-led coalition. When they released the murder rate figures, U.S. officials and their Iraqi counterparts were eager to show progress in restoring security in Baghdad at a time when Iraq appeared on the verge of civil war.

At the end of August, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell, said violence had dropped significantly because of the operation. Caldwell said "attacks in Baghdad were well below the monthly average for July. Since Aug. 7, the murder rate in Baghdad dropped 52 percent from the daily rate for July."

A leading cause of deaths
However, Caldwell did not make the key distinction that the rate he was referring to excluded a significant part of the daily violence in and around the capital. On Monday, for example, at least 20 of the 26 people slain in the capital were killed in bombings.

"These comments were intended to highlight some specific indicators of progress and were never stated in relation to broader casualty figures," U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Barry Johnson said Monday.

He said Caldwell "used murders and executions specifically because they are a key indicator of sectarian-related violence."

Johnson said other types of violence that are recorded by the military as "indicators for calculating casualties" include suicide attacks, mortar and rocket assaults, roadside bombs called improvised explosive devices, or IEDs small-arms fire "such as when used to fire in crowds after an IED attack versus an individual being murdered," and car bombs known as VBIEDs.

Under the military definition, murders include civilians killed "who are specifically targeted," but do not include executions or "those killed in indirect fire, IED, VBIED, or suicide attacks, all of which may or may not be related to sectarian violence."

Executions, as defined by the U.S. military, include people who have been held, tortured and then killed and are considered to be motivated by ethnic or sectarian reasons unless they are some form of reprisal killing or related to crime.

Johnson would not provide the figures used to calculate the percentages and said the military would not give detailed information about trends because that could provide "our enemy information they need to adjust their tactics and procedures to be more effective against us."

He added that although the military collected data on violence from as many sources as possible and used a consistent methodology, "we do not claim our information represents every possible victim of violence."

Widespread uncertainty over death toll
The confusion over numbers underscores the difficulty of obtaining accurate death tolls in Iraq, which lacks the reporting and tracking systems of most modern nations. When top Iraqi political officials cite death numbers, they often refuse to say where the figures came from.

The Health Ministry, which tallies civilian deaths, relies on reports from government hospitals and morgues. The Interior Ministry, which command the police, compiles figures from police stations, while the Defense Ministry reports deaths only among army soldiers and insurgents killed in combat.

The United Nations keeps its own count, based largely on reports from the Baghdad morgue and the Health Ministry. A U.N. official said it would be announcing August figures later.

Controversy over civilian death figures in Iraq dates back to the U.S. invasion. Some believe that figures are manipulated politically.

In December 2003, the Health Ministry stopped releasing civilian casualty figures for several months.
Last year, Baghdad morgue director Faik Baker fled to Jordan after he said he came under pressure to not report deaths especially those caused by death squads.

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