updated 10/14/2009 1:23:58 PM ET 2009-10-14T17:23:58

At least 85,000 Iraqis lost their lives from 2004-2008 in violence, the government said in its first comprehensive tally released since the war began.

The report by the Human Rights Ministry said 85,694 people were killed in the four-year period and 147,195 were wounded. It counted Iraqi civilians, military and police but did not cover U.S. military deaths, insurgents, or foreigners, including contractors or U.S. forces. And it did not include the first months of the war after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

The Associated Press reported in April that the government had recorded 87,215 Iraqi deaths from 2005 to February 2009, a toll very similar to the latest release. It was based on government statistics obtained by the AP and covered violence ranging from catastrophic bombings to execution-style slayings.

Until the AP report, the government's toll of Iraqi deaths had been one of the most closely guarded secrets of the war. It has been hotly disputed 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 toll to sway public opinion.

The ministry's report came out late Tuesday as part of a larger study on human rights in the country. It described the years that followed the invasion, which toppled Saddam Hussein's regime, as extremely violent.

"Through the terrorist attacks like explosions, assassinations, kidnappings and forced displacements, the outlawed groups have created these terrible figures which represent a big challenge for the rule of law and for the Iraqi people," it said.

Touched by violence
Violence has declined dramatically since the worst years, but almost every person in Iraq has been touched by the violence. Insurgents continue to target civilians, especially Shiites and their shrines.

Iraq's death toll continued to climb on Wednesday when three near simultaneous blasts struck the southern Shiite holy city of Karbala. At least six people were killed, Iraqi police and medical officials said.

The ministry's report said 1,279 children and 2,334 women were killed in the four-year period covered. It said 263 university professors, 21 judges, 95 lawyers and 269 journalists were killed, singling out some of the professions which were specifically targeted as the country descended into chaos.

The toll also included 15,000 unidentified bodies not claimed by families and buried in special cemeteries.

As Iraq became increasingly violent following the 2003 invasion, it also became increasingly difficult to independently track death figures.

Statistics from the initial months of the war have been extremely difficult to obtain as there was no functioning Iraqi government during that time and the interim government was not seated until mid-2004. The difficulties of quantifying the loss were compounded by the fact that records were not always compiled centrally, and the brutal insurgency sharply limited on-the-scene reporting. The U.S. military never shared its data.

The number obtained by the AP was a minimum count of violent deaths. The official who provided the data to the AP estimated the actual number of deaths was 10 to 20 percent higher because thousands are still missing and civilians were buried in the chaos of war without official records.

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 AP, the figures showed that more than 110,600 Iraqis had died in violence since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and up through early 2009.

The most recent numbers from Iraq Body Count, a private London-based group that has tracked civilian casualties since the war began, puts the number of civilian casualties as of Oct. 14 at 93,540.

The toll released Tuesday was based on death certificates issued by the Health Ministry, which has tallied them since 2005. The tolls measure only violent deaths — people killed in attacks such as the shootings, bombings, mortar attacks and beheadings that have ravaged Iraq. They exclude indirect factors such as damage to infrastructure, health care and stress that caused thousands more to die.

Undercounting deaths?
Some experts 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.

While the Pentagon maintains meticulous records of the number of American troops killed — at least 4,349 as of Wednesday — 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.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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