BAGHDAD, Iraq — Punctured by bullets or torn by bombs, broken bodies keep coming into Baghdad’s main morgue. Some are dumped on the blood-splattered concrete floor. Others lie naked on metal gurneys in a hallway, waiting for autopsies as flies buzz in the spring heat.
Even before the spasm of bloodshed that began early last month, Iraqis were suffering a heavy toll from crime, tribal revenge killings, terrorist bombings and fighting between coalition troops and insurgents.
An Associated Press survey of deaths in the first 12 months of the occupation found that more than 5,000 Iraqis died violently in just Baghdad and three provinces. The toll from both criminal and political violence ran dramatically higher than violent deaths before the war, according to statistics from morgues.
There are no reliable figures for places like Fallujah and Najaf that have seen surges in fighting since early April.
Indeed, there is no precise count for Iraq as a whole on how many people have been killed, nor is there a breakdown of deaths caused by the different sorts of attacks. The U.S. military, the occupation authority and Iraqi government agencies say they don’t have the ability to track civilian deaths.
But the AP survey of morgues in Baghdad and the provinces of Karbala, Kirkuk and Tikrit found 5,558 violent deaths recorded from May 1, 2003, when President Bush declared an end to major combat operations, to April 30. Officials at morgues for three more of Iraq’s 18 provinces either didn’t have numbers or declined to release them.
Violence by numbers
The AP’s survey was not a comprehensive compilation of the nationwide death toll, but was a sampling intended to assess the levels of violence. Figures for violent deaths in the months before the war showed a far lower rate.
That doesn’t mean Iraq is a more dangerous place than during Saddam Hussein’s regime. At least 300,000 people were murdered by security forces and buried in mass graves during the dictator’s 23-year rule, U.S. officials say, and human rights workers put the number closer to 500,000.
“We cannot compare the situation now with how it was before,” Nouri Jaber al-Nouri, inspector general of the Interior Ministry, said recently. “Iraqis used to fear everything. ... But now, despite all that is happening, we feel safe.”
Still, the morgue figures, which exclude trauma deaths from accidents, highlight the insecurity Iraqis feel from the high level of criminal and political violence, and underline the challenges that coalition and Iraqi forces face in trying to bring peace.
‘Now there are few controls’
In Baghdad, a city of about 5.6 million, 4,279 people were recorded killed in the 12 months through April 30, according to figures provided by Kais Hassan, director of statistics at Baghdad’s Medicolegal Institute, which administers the city’s morgues.
“Before the war, there was a strong government, strong security. There were a lot of police on the streets and there were no illegal weapons,” he said during an AP reporter’s visit to the morgue. “Now there are few controls. There is crime, revenge killings, so much violence.”
The figure does not include most people killed in big terrorist bombings, Hassan said. The cause of death in such cases is obvious so bodies are usually not taken to the morgue, but given directly to victims’ families.
Morgue records do not document the circumstances surrounding the 4,279 deaths — whether killed by insurgents, occupation forces, criminals or others. The records list only the cause of a death, such as gunshot or explosion, Hassan said.
It is the police’s responsibility to determine why a person dies. But al-Nouri, the official at the Interior Ministry, which oversees police, said the agency lacks the resources to investigate all killings or keep track of causes of death.
U.S. forces have records for the numbers of claims for compensation from Iraqis for personal injury, deaths of family members, or for property damage caused by U.S. military action in “non-combat” situations. Some $3 million has been paid to about 5,000 claimants, American officials said last month. About 8,000 claims had been rejected and 3,000 were pending, they said.
The officials declined to provide a breakdown of the figures to show how many claims were for deaths. They also said a single incident involving U.S. forces could lead to multiple compensation claims.
Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the U.S. military’s deputy director of operations, said U.S. forces do not have the capacity to track Iraqi civilian casualties. To highlight the complexity of the task, he pointed to the March 17 bombing of the Mount Lebanon Hotel in Baghdad where a U.S.-announced death toll dropped from an initial 27 to 17, and later to just seven.
“There are always discrepancies any time you have a situation as chaotic as the aftermath of a bombing,” he said.
357 violent deaths a month
The death toll recorded by the Baghdad morgue was an average of 357 violent deaths each month from May through April. That contrasts with an average of 14 a month for 2002, Hassan’s documents showed.
The toll translates into an annual homicide rate of about 76 killings for every 100,000 people.
By comparison, crime-ridden Bogota, Colombia, reported 39 homicides per 100,000 people in 2002, while New York City had about 7.5 per 100,000 last year. Iraq’s neighbor Jordan, a country with a population a little less than Baghdad’s, recorded about 2.4 homicides per 100,000 in 2003.
Other Iraqi morgues visited by AP reporters also reported big increases in violent deaths.
In Karbala, a province of 1.5 million people 60 miles south of Baghdad, 663 people were killed from May through April, or an average of 55 a month, said Ali Alardawi, deputy administrator of Alhuien Hospital, which runs the morgue in the provincial capital, Karbala. That compares with an average of one violent death a month in 2002, he said.
Figures from Tikrit, Kirkuk
Tikrit, a province of 650,000 people 90 miles north of Baghdad, recorded 205 people killed from May through April, or an average of 17 a month, said Najat Khorshid Sa’id, statistics director at the morgue in the provincial capital, Tikrit, which was Saddam’s hometown. He said no one died from violence in 2002.
In Kirkuk, a northern province of 1.5 million people, 401 people were killed from May through April, or an average of 34 a month, said Fadhillah Ahmed Rasheed, head of the morgue in the provincial capital, Kirkuk. The province averaged three violent deaths a month in 2002, he said.
The human rights organization Amnesty International, based in London, estimated in March that more than 10,000 Iraqi civilians had been killed “as a direct result of military intervention in Iraq, either during the war or during the subsequent occupation.”
There are no precise estimates for deaths during last year’s invasion. The Associated Press conducted a major investigation of wartime civilian casualties, documenting the deaths of 3,240 civilians from March 20 to April 20, 2003. The report concluded the real number of civilian deaths was sure to be much higher.
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