BAGHDAD (AFP) – More than 1,500 people were killed in Baghdad last month, down by only 14 percent from July, the health ministry said, despite US claims that a security operation had cut murders by half.
“The Baghdad morgue received 1,584 bodies of people killed in violent attacks,” Hakim al-Zamily, director general at the ministry told AFP. The ministry reported 1,850 killings in the war-torn capital in July.
The health ministry figures fly in the face of Thursday’s statement by the US-led forces chief spokesman Major General William Caldwell that August’s “murder rate in Baghdad dropped 52 percent from the daily rate for July.”
However, another coalition spokesman said on Friday that the US military figure for murders does not include those killed in Baghdad’s daily suicide bombings and mortar attacks in crowded civilian areas.
“Murders are basically sectarian, when an individual is targeted in a sectarian related death such as an execution, but do not include such things as car bombs or mortar attacks,” Lieutenant Colonel Barry Johnson told AFP.
This distinction, which had not been made clear earlier, could explain the discrepancy between the health ministry’s figures and those of the coalition.
Almost every day, Iraqis trade salvos of mortar shells between Baghdad neighbourhoods and trigger car bombs and booby traps in civilian areas as part of a vicious sectarian turf war between rival Sunni and Shiite factions.
At the same time, political assassinations and sectarian reprisals are carried out by shadowy death squads, who snatch their victims from their homes or the street, torture them to death and dump their bodies by the roadside.
Three civilian bystanders were killed on Friday when insurgents set off a roadside bomb against the convoy of a senior police officer, a security official said. Their deaths will not be included in US murder figures.
Baghdad police also said that they found the bodies of six men who had been first tortured and then shot dead, in the kind of apparent sectarian killings which are included in the shrinking US tally.
On June 14, US and Iraqi forces launched “Operation Together Forward”, a massive security operation in the capital, in a bid to quell the violence and restore the battered authority of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government.
Despite the push, the number of violent deaths in July was the highest since the US-led invasion of March 2003. In August, however, US officers began to report the operation was succeeding in bringing down the death toll.
Johnson would not comment on the Iraqi health ministry figures, nor provide the coalition’s own estimate of total killings in Iraq in August, but he defended the success of Operation Together Forward.
“I think we’re seeing progress. I think we go into neighbourhoods and we do see a definite decrease in the violence there and we see people coming back out into the streets trying to resume their lives,” he said.
“We’re seeing very real progress in the areas where we’re conducting operations,” he added.
Under the Together Forward banner, thousands of US and Iraqi troops have targeted flashpoint districts of the capital, cordoning off streets, conducting house to house weapons searches and launching construction projects.
US and Iraqi officers began to boast of a decrease in violence towards the end of August, but in the last few days of the month insurgents hit back with a dramatic wave of bombings and rocket attacks in densely-packed suburbs.
On at least one occasion a gang rented a flat, rigged it with explosives and demolished a whole apartment block, crushing entire families inside.
“Violence will continue throughout Iraq, possibly even spiking as insurgents and terrorists punch back against security operations in Baghdad, but the seeds are being sown for long-term success,” Caldwell wrote on the coalition website.