Official Says Shiite Party Suppressed Body Count
By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
03/09/06 "Washington Post" -- -- BAGHDAD, March 8 -- 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
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
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
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.
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
"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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
© 2006 The Washington Post Company
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