- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 10, 2008

About 151,000 Iraqis died from violence in the three years after the United States invaded, concluded the best effort yet to count deaths — one that still may not settle the fierce debate over the war’s true toll on civilians and others.

The estimate comes from projections by the World Health Organization and the Iraqi government, based on door-to-door surveys of nearly 10,000 households. Analysts called it the largest and most scientific study of the Iraqi death toll since the war began.

Its bottom line is far lower than the 600,000 deaths reported in an earlier study but higher than numbers from other groups tracking the count.

The new estimate covers a period from the start of the war in March 2003 through June 2006.

It closely mirrors the tally that Iraq’s health minister gave in late 2006, based on 100 bodies a day arriving at morgues and hospitals. His number shocked people in and outside Iraq, because it was so much higher than previously accepted estimates.

No official count has ever been available. Although the U.S. military says it does not track Iraqi deaths, it has erroneously challenged some press reports of tolls from shootings and bombings as exaggerated — indicating that it does, in fact, monitor fatalities.

In November, a U.S. military official said the Pentagon was working with Iraqi authorities to better track civilian casualties. One goal is to avoid duplicate reports, said Col. Bill Rapp, a senior aide to the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus.

The true toll may never be known because many deaths go unreported in the chaos that has gripped the country or the numbers may be tainted by sectarian bias. The Iraqi security forces and government are led by Shi’ites.

Muslim burial traditions add to difficulties — many families are thought to simply bury loved ones before sundown on the day of death without reporting the fatality.

Still, Iraq’s minister of health, Dr. Salih Mahdi Mutlab Al-Hasnawi, defended the new estimate in a telephone interview with reporters yesterday.

“This is a very sound survey” with a large sample and good methods, he said.

Richard Brennan of the New York-Based International Rescue Committee, which has conducted similar research in Kosovo, Uganda and Congo, agreed.

“The goal is not to give an absolute, precise number of deaths. The goal is to give a sense of the magnitude of the problem,” he said.

White House deputy press secretary Tony Fratto said White House officials had not seen the study, but called the deaths of Iraqi citizens or any troops “tragic.”

“We mourn the deaths of all people in Iraq as the country fights to defeat extremists,” he said, contending that last year’s surge of troops is reducing civilian deaths.

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