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Iraq civilian death toll up -- and rising

Figures show ordinary people do most of the dying

BAGHDAD -- The death toll among Iraqi civilians in insurgency-related violence last year was more than twice as high as that of the country's soldiers and police combined, according to government figures obtained yesterday by The Associated Press.

And the civilian death count in the first two months of this year already stands at more than one-quarter of last year's total -- due largely to sectarian violence triggered by the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shi'ite shrine and car bombings in Shi'ite neighborhoods around Baghdad.

Figures compiled by the Health Ministry put the civilian death toll for 2005 at 4,024. The ministry's count for the first two months of this year is 1,093.

Death tolls for the police and army are compiled by the ministries of Interior and Defense. Their figures show that 1,695 police and soldiers were killed last year. Most of the victims -- 1,222 -- were from the police.

That pattern has continued through January and February of this year, when 155 policemen and 44 soldiers died. Iraqi soldiers have better body armor than police officers and make better use of armored vehicles. Many Iraqi police patrol the dangerous streets of Baghdad and other cities in cars and pickup trucks without armor.

There is no way to verify the figures independently. In a dangerous country that is as large as California, journalists generally tend to rely on figures provided by local police, hospitals, and the Interior Ministry.

Figures in major attacks often vary widely, with police spokesmen giving different figures to different Iraqi and international news organizations. In some cases, Interior Ministry death counts in major car bombings are different from the totals provided by subordinate police units. In some cases the discrepancy is a result of the difficulty in counting bodies ripped apart by fierce explosions. In others, politicians may be inflating figures to draw attention to the suffering of their community.

By the time the tallies are standardized, news organizations tend to have moved on to reporting other violence, and may be unaware that the figures have been adjusted.

An Associated Press count from April 28, 2005, when the current government took office, through December 2005 found that at least 3,375 Iraqi civilians and at least 1,561 Iraqi security personnel were killed.

The Brookings Institution estimates that between 5,696 and 9,934 civilians were killed in Iraq during all of 2005. Brookings estimates at least 2,569 Iraqi military and police were killed during the year, based on a monthly count by the website icasualties.org.

Regardless of the precise figures, studies agree that among government security forces, the police are at greater risk than the army, and that Iraqi civilians die in greater numbers than the military and the police combined.

That reflects the nature of the Iraq conflict, now approaching its third anniversary.

Since the fall of Baghdad and the end of major combat in April 2003, the Iraq war has been increasingly fought by insurgents triggering a bomb on a crowded street or ambushing a US patrol. The increased use of roadside bombs has devastating effects on civilians.

Frequently, the blast misses the intended target -- perhaps a passing convoy of police, soldiers, or foreign security contractors -- and instead kills mothers carrying groceries home to their families, children walking to or from school, or unemployed men loitering around street corners in hopes of getting odd jobs.

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