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In Iraq, death tolls often in dispute

Disparities between official and eyewitness tallies lead some Iraqis to charge the government with downplaying attacks.

By Sam DagherCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / August 3, 2007



BAGHDAD

Throngs of Iraqis were busily shopping for the weekend when a truck bomb and barrage of rockets ripped apart the market in central Karrada.

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Iraqiya television and most Western media outlets reported that 25 were killed and 100 wounded in the July 26 attack, of which virtually no images were shown.

But less than a week later, the names of 92 dead and 127 wounded were posted on a list taped to a shuttered storefront. It was compiled by municipal and civil defense crews that led the rescue efforts.

The disparity in official numbers and the ones posted in the market, and apparent differences between government figures and eyewitness accounts after other recent bombings, leaves many Iraqis feeling that the government is intentionally downplaying or trying to cover up the numbers of dead.

"They want to cover up their incompetence," says Fawaz Hassan of the government. "I plead with you … please deliver the truth to the world. We do not want any compensation. We just want the world to know what happened here."

Mr. Hassan and his brother, Haidar, watched on Wednesday as a municipal tractor removed rubble from the scene. Dozens of black funeral banners displaying the names of entire families hung as a kind of testimony to the level of devastation. Four homes were reduced to rubble and a three-story building, which wrapped around an entire block, was gutted.
The Hassan brothers lost a nephew, and their brother and sister were badly wounded. Their homes and businesses, on the same street, were destroyed.

Another resident, Maher Hafidh, who helped remove the dead, says that his cousin and a neighbor were among the people that are still missing and have yet to be included on the list of dead.

Residents of the Karrada neighborhood were indeed angry with the government and local television stations, namely Iraqiya, for not covering the extent of the tragedy. Some even said residents threw rocks and shoes at Iraqi and Coalition forces and Iraqi officials who had shown up at the scene.

The aftermath of other recent attacks followed a similar pattern.

After a Karrada bombing Wednesday, plumes of smoke shot up into the hazy summer sky for nearly half an hour. A car bomber detonated his load on a congested road opposite a gas station.

Fifteen to 20 Iraqis were killed, according to local TV and western media, which get figures from Iraqi police or anonymous Interior Ministry sources.

Most Iraqis at the scene insisted the toll was much higher. They claimed that dozens died.

One Iraqi official confirmed that the government and the Ministries of Defense and Interior regularly "underreport" deadly acts of violence despite having all the data.

The official, formerly with a joint US-Iraqi operations center in the Green Zone, who requested anonymity, says the most reliable death tolls are the ones collected by the Ministry of Health.

But a government spokesman denies there has been any manipulation of figures or pressure on television stations, including state-funded Iraqiya, to play down news of violence.

In fact, it is the station itself that has decided to play down the toll of daily violence.

"We want people to forget reality," says Haidar al-Shaaban, an executive at the station, which was founded by the former US-led Occupation Authority but maintains editorial independence.

Mr. Shaaban says the station is now committed to spreading good news and broadcasting programs to unite Iraqis. For instance, after the Iraqi soccer team beat Saudi Arabia in the Asian Cup, it broadcast nonstop coverage of Iraqis celebrating the win.

Yassin Majid, the government's media relations chief, says that while he may disagree with the way Iraqiya prioritizes its news, there's nothing the government can do. "Do not imagine that the government has ever called the station and said put this item or that item first."

As for tolls, Mr. Majid says the government reports and updates all acts of violence as part of the current security offensives in Baghdad and the surrounding provinces. This is in addition to monthly reports released by the Ministries of Interior and Health.

The government has nonetheless taken several steps in recent months to control how acts of violence are reported.

In May, it barred photojournalists and TV crews from bomb scenes. Earlier, it prohibited hospitals and the Ministry of Health from sharing any toll figures with the media. The government has, on several occasions, publicly chastised the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq and nongovernmental organizations for using tolls compiled by media in their reports.

The Associated Press said Wednesday that at least 2,024 Iraqis died violently in July, based on its own tally of police reports nationwide. This was 23 percent higher than the June figure of 1,640, making July the second-deadliest month for Iraqis this year. The government has yet to release its figures for the period.

"The Iraqi government obviously does not want to give much credit to the adversary in disrupting daily life," says Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group.

But, Mr. Hiltermann, contacted in Amman, Jordan, says, he does not have much faith in data coming out of Iraq. He says the Iraqi government is too "disorganized and dysfunctional" while the security situation limits the media and other independent bodies from compiling accurate data.

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