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Originally published Friday, October 20, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Iraqi health ministry barred from releasing death count

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's office has instructed the country's health ministry to stop providing mortality figures to the United...

The Washington Post

UNITED NATIONS — Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's office has instructed the country's health ministry to stop providing mortality figures to the United Nations, jeopardizing a key source of information on the number of civilian war dead in Iraq, according to a U.N. document.

A confidential cable from the United Nations' top official in Baghdad, Ashraf Jehangir Qazi of Pakistan, said the Iraqi prime minister is seeking to exercise greater control over the release of the country's politically sensitive death toll. But U.N. officials expressed concern that the move threatens to politicize the process of counting Iraq's dead and muddy international efforts to gain a clear snapshot of the scale of killing in Iraq.

Qazi warned in the cable that the development may affect the United Nations' ability to adequately record the number of civilians killed or wounded in the Iraq war as it endures a bloody new phase of sectarian violence. He said that U.N. human-rights workers would have "no guaranteed means to corroborate" figures provided by the government.

Iraq's acting U.N. ambassador, Feisal Amin al-Istrabadi, said he was unaware of his government's decision, "so I don't know what the rationale for it is. It has not reached our mission."

The ongoing debate over the Iraqi death toll was reignited this month after a team of Iraqi and American epidemiologists estimated that 650,000 more people have died in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003 than would have died if the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime had not occurred.

Those figures, published in the British medical journal the Lancet, were dismissed by the United States and Britain as inflated. President Bush said in a speech last December that 30,000 civilians have died as a result of the war; the group Iraq Body Count yesterday posted an estimate of between 43,937 and 48,783 civilian deaths.

The Iraqi government has long resisted efforts by U.N. officials and human-rights workers to obtain reliable government figures on mortality. But since July 2005, the Medico Legal Institute in Baghdad, which is controlled by the Iraqi health ministry, has supplied U.N. investigators with raw figures from morgues on civilians who have died violently. The health ministry's Department of Operation has provided the U.N. with similar figures from the country's hospitals.

Those numbers attracted relatively little attention until June, when the U.N. human-rights office in Baghdad estimated that more than 100 people a day were dying in Iraq. In August, the office recorded the largest spike of violence since the invasion with more than 6,600 people killed in Iraq in July and August.

A spokesman for the prime minister subsequently voiced suspicion to the U.N. that the health ministry, which is controlled by officials linked to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, had been overstating the numbers, according to Qazi.

Qazi said the prime minister's office sent a letter to the Iraqi health minister instructing him to "no longer release data on mortality." The prime minister's communications director, the letter stated, would be responsible for "centralizing and disseminating such information in the future," Qazi wrote.

Iraq's health minister appealed to the prime minister to allow his agency to continue providing the United Nations and the U.S.-led military coalition with "data on the dead and wounded," according to Qazi. That request was denied.

Qazi sought to defend the U.N. efforts, noting that Prime Minister al-Maliki confirmed that 100 civilians were dying each day. He also noted that the Washington-based Brookings Institution characterized the U.N. estimates as "perhaps the most accurate estimate of the number of civilians killed and wounded in Iraq."

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