Days after the bombing of a Shiite shrine unleashed a wave of retaliatory killings of Sunnis, the leading Shiite party in Iraq's governing coalition directed the Health Ministry to stop tabulating execution-style shootings, according to a ministry official familiar with the recording of deaths.
The official, who spoke on the condition that he not be named because he feared for his safety, said a representative of the Shiite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, ordered that government hospitals and morgues catalogue deaths caused by bombings or clashes with insurgents, but not by execution-style shootings.
A statement this week by the U.N. human rights department in Baghdad appeared to support the account of the Health Ministry official. The agency said it had received information about Baghdad's main morgue -- where victims of fatal shootings are taken -- that indicated "the current acting director is under pressure by the Interior Ministry in order not to reveal such information and to minimize the number of casualties."
The U.N. office said it had not confirmed the information about the morgue and had been unable so far to obtain an accounting of the toll from Iraqi authorities.
Spokesmen for the Health Ministry and the Supreme Council -- commonly known by its initials, SCIRI -- denied that any order to alter the tabulation of deaths had been issued.
Abductions and killings of Sunni Arab men, usually by gunshots to the back of the head, have occurred with increasing frequency over the past year and are widely blamed on government-allied Shiite religious militias and death squads alleged to be operating from inside the SCIRI-dominated Interior Ministry. In particular, Shiite militias have been accused of abducting and executing large numbers of Sunni men in the days immediately following the Feb. 22 destruction of the Askariya mosque, a revered Shiite shrine in the northern city of Samarra.
After a lull in recent days, abductions and killings flared again in Baghdad on Wednesday. Police in west Baghdad found a minibus that contained the bodies of 18 bound and strangled men, and 50 employees of an Iraqi security firm were kidnapped on the east side of the city.
The Washington Post reported on Feb. 28 that more than 1,300 shooting victims had been brought to the morgue in the first six days after the Samarra bombing. The figure was provided by a morgue worker who refused to be identified by name.
Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari denied the account, saying Shiite-Sunni violence had claimed 379 lives in the week following the attack on the shrine. Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the U.S. commander in Iraq, called The Post's report exaggerated and inaccurate. An e-mail sent to U.S. military officials this week seeking updated casualty figures went unanswered.
Official tally called into question
But during the past week, various government ministries declined to give a breakdown of the 379 total, or said they were unable to, and several inconsistencies in their accounts appeared to call the government's tally into question.
In addition to the morgue worker, three sources -- the Health Ministry official, an official with the Interior Ministry and an international official in Baghdad -- involved in tallying or monitoring the mounting deaths also have put the toll at 1,000 or more, though none gave a toll as high as 1,300. Two of the sources said pressure by Shiite leaders not to report execution-style shootings had produced the lower death toll announced by Jafari.
The international official said "Ministry of Health types" were reckoning about 1,000 deaths before Jafari issued his denial. "By February 28th, even the 1st, that was the number being floated, almost acknowledged" publicly, the international official said, referring to March 1. "Then the government announced'' its lower figure.
"They're afraid," the official said.
Morgue authorities now say that only 250 bodies were received between Feb. 22 and 28. That breaks down to about 35 bodies a day, scarcely more than the daily average of roughly 30 corpses reported since the middle of last year. And it is unclear how, or whether, the government includes execution-style militia killings in the tally.
Iraqi officials denied that the death figures had been manipulated.
"I find it very unlikely, very strange, that some political official would come and impose their own views on this ministry," said Qasim Yahiya, a spokesman for the Health Ministry.
Haitham al-Husseini, a spokesman for the SCIRI, said: "How can SCIRI put pressure on authorities or on people? I don't expect you can believe such a thing. How can SCIRI go to a ministry and give instruction to an official to do this or that?"
"This is part of the campaign that the enemies of Iraq and the Iraqi people are still trying to lead to confuse the situation," Husseini said. "And this is part of their campaign to show their lies about the Ministry of Interior and what is happening and also to draw the attention of the people away from the crimes they are committing against the civilians."
The widely differing tolls reflect acute political sensitivity at a time when Iraq's three-year-old conflict is undergoing a fundamental shift: Execution-style killings of the kind frequently blamed on police or Shiite militias allied with the government appear to be killing more Iraqis than bombings of government and civilian targets by Sunni Arab insurgents.
Shiites control largest bloc
Since Jan. 30, 2005, when Iraq held its first parliamentary elections since President Saddam Hussein was ousted almost two years earlier, the country's Shiite majority has controlled the largest bloc in parliament and the most powerful positions in the cabinet. The SCIRI is the dominant member of the governing Shiite coalition and holds several key cabinet portfolios, including the Interior Ministry, which oversees Iraq's police.
The Health Ministry, which operates the Baghdad morgue and government hospitals, is in the hands of a religious party headed by Moqtada al-Sadr, the Shiite cleric whose militia, the Mahdi Army, waged two armed uprisings against U.S. forces in 2004. Since the Samarra bombing, the Mahdi Army has been widely accused of kidnapping and killing Sunni men. Families collecting bodies at the morgue last week described gunmen in the black clothes associated with Sadr's militia coming to Sunni homes or to mosques and taking men away.
Sadr's organization has denied any connection with the killings, saying crimes were being committed by people who had dressed in black to focus blame on the Mahdi Army.
At Baghdad's morgue, where the walls are decorated with pictures of Sadr, Post reporters saw bodies overflowing into hallways and onto floors during the week following the Samarra bombing. Bodies taken to the morgue are almost invariably victims of shootings and other circumstances requiring investigation; those killed in bombings and rocket and mortar attacks are taken to hospitals because the cause of death is considered clear-cut.
A Post reporter visiting the morgue about noon Feb. 23, the day after the mosque bombing and before the subsequent violence peaked, counted the bodies of 84 males ranging in age from about 12 to more than 60. All died violently -- the morgue handles most violent deaths for which police request an investigation -- and morgue officials separately told the Agence France-Presse news agency at the time that 80 people had been killed in the first hours of violence after the mosque bombing.
Four days later, another Post reporter who went to the morgue was told by workers that the facility contained more than 200 unclaimed bodies at that time.
Morgue and Health Ministry officials say morgue workers were barely able to keep up with the arrival of bodies. Iraq's state-run pharmaceutical company lent the ministry "six or seven'' refrigerated trailers to handle the overflow, according to the ministry official. Bodies that went unclaimed were buried in cemeteries in Baghdad, Najaf and Karbala.
In all, the Health Ministry official said, more than 1,000 people died in the first six days of violence, although it was not clear whether that covered only Baghdad or all of Iraq.
For several days after the Samarra bombing, the government added a daytime curfew to the long-standing one in Baghdad at night in a bid to quell the Shiite-Sunni bloodletting. During the last weekend in February, few vehicles could be seen on Baghdad's streets other than those of government officials, security forces and gunmen dressed in black.
'Forget what I told you'
At least one representative of the SCIRI traveled to the Health Ministry, according to the ministry official. On or about Feb. 27, the ministry official said, a party representative directed ministry employees that victims of sectarian killings not associated with insurgent attacks should no longer be recorded. Instead, their names were only to be posted on the morgue wall so that their families could retrieve their bodies.
Contacted a second time this week, the ministry official refused to speak further, saying, "Forget what I told you."
Abdul Razzaq Kadhumi, the prime minister's spokesman, declined Wednesday to give a breakdown of the figure of 379 execution-style killings given by Jafari. "These are obviously terrorist, Saddamist and Baathist acts against civilians, and they all go under victims of terrorism," he said
Kadhumi also declined to give a contact number for Jafari's operations room, where he said the figure was reached. He referred the question to the operations rooms of the Defense and Interior ministries, which said they had a figure only for "terrorists'' killed -- 35 -- from Feb. 22 to March 1 and none for civilians or security forces.
On Tuesday, Yahiya, the Health Ministry spokesman, showed a Post reporter what he said was the official, confidential tally that the Health Ministry sends to the prime minister's office each day. The two-page sheet included only two categories of deaths: "military operations" and "terrorist attacks."
Yahiya said he did not know if the ministry tally included bodies that turned up at morgues in Baghdad and regional capitals of Iraq after having been tortured and shot. "There's always fights between tribes," Yahiya said. "We have no idea if a person was killed in executions or personal vendettas.'"
The Baghdad morgue's acting director, Qais Hassan, said the morgue sent the Health Ministry daily figures broken down only by cause of death, without details about the kind of attack in which each person was killed. Hassan denied that any pressure had been placed on him to manipulate death tolls.
Hassan became acting morgue director after the previous director, Faik Bakir, left the country in recent months. International officials said he fled the country after receiving threats from both insurgents and pro-government forces over investigations of suspicious deaths. Bakir issued a statement over the weekend denying that, saying he had left the country on four months' approved medical leave.
Hassan also said refrigerated trucks had been borrowed from the state pharmaceutical agency to handle the overflow of corpses following the mosque bombing. He said only three of the trailers were brought in, however, rather than six to seven. "It was overwhelming work to do, but we managed it," he said.
On Monday, two trucks with Thermo King refrigerated trailers were parked in a lot between the Health Ministry and the morgue, and a third refrigerated trailer was seen over the weekend in a separate parking lot off the morgue. Both parking lots were closed. From a distance, there was no clear sign the trailers were in use.
Health Ministry drivers volunteered Monday that two of the refrigerated trailers had been brought to the ministry parking lot during the violence following the mosque bombing, and that two other trailers also were brought in. The drivers said they saw bodies being placed in the trailers. Their accounts could not be independently verified.
On Sunday, as a Washington Post reporter briefly visited the morgue office, five bodies were brought in from a town just outside Baghdad. All were neatly dressed men, all had their hands bound, and all had been shot in the back of the head. Morgue officials took the bodies to one of the refrigerated trailers. No mention of the five appeared in news reports.
Access to the morgue was restricted, a sharp contrast from the scene on Feb. 27, when men were allowed to enter the morgue to search among the many bloodied corpses for family members and anxious relatives swarmed around a computer screen that showed photos of the unidentified dead.
Over the weekend, families were kept outside a gate and made to register to see the photos on the computer. No access was allowed to the morgue itself. A man dressed in black and carrying a radio kept watch on the crowd.
Other Washington Post staff contributed to this report.