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UN says Iraqi death toll is on record pace

In daily carnage, sectarian violence leaves scores dead

BAGHDAD -- The number of civilians killed in Iraq reached a record monthly high of 3,709 in October, most a result of sectarian violence, according to a UN report released yesterday.

The report by the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq described the many ways civilians have been killed, including from roadside bombs, drive-by shootings, and kidnappings. Many were found handcuffed, blindfolded, and bearing signs of torture and execution-style killing. Most had gunshot wounds.

Culling from figures kept by Iraq's Health Ministry, private hospitals, and Baghdad's morgue, the report described a rapidly deteriorating society that has forced an estimated 1.6 million people to flee to neighboring countries since the war began in 2003. Terrorists and insurgents are no longer the main perpetrators of the killings. Death squads linked to militias, often in collusion with the Iraqi police, and criminal gangs are also responsible, the report found. Many slayings were acts of vengeance.

"There's a great deal of people taking the law into their own hands and not looking for justice within the system," Gianni Magazzeni, head of the UN human rights office in Baghdad, said in an interview.

Yesterday was no different: About 100 people were killed in the country. Among them was a bodyguard to the speaker of Iraq's parliament, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, who himself escaped an apparent assassination attempt the day before. A journalist for the state-run al-Sabah newspaper was also killed, gunned down as he drove through the capital.

Keeping track of casualties in Iraq is an imprecise process that has become increasingly embarrassing for Iraqi leaders trying to project the image that they are ready to take over the normal functions of government. The British-based research group Iraq Body Count estimates that about 50,000 civilians died since the 2003 US-led invasion. Last month, a team of American and Iraqi epidemiologists gave a more dire assessment, estimating that 655,000 more people have died in the post-invasion period than would have had there not been a war.

The Iraqi government quickly moved to discredit the UN report, saying the United Nations gathered information from unreliable sources. It did not provide its own tally.

"Yes, we have casualties, but not that huge number of casualties," Health Minister Ali Hussein al-Shamari said on Iraqi television. "The true number might be a quarter that, although we feel sorry for those who are dying. But they want to mislead the world about the conditions in Iraq."

Magazzeni dismissed the UN report's detractors, saying that much of the information came from the Health Ministry.

The report looked at casualty figures for the months of September and October. In the two months combined, the number of civilians killed was 7,054, almost 5,000 in Baghdad. That was an increase from the 6,599 killed in July and August, as previously reported by the human rights office.

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