Iraq’s government said at least 85,000 people were killed from 2004 to 2008, officially answering one of the biggest questions of the conflict — how many perished in the sectarian violence that nearly led to a civil war.
What remains unanswered is how many died in the 2003 U.S. invasion and in the months of chaos that followed it.
A report by the Human Rights Ministry said 85,694 people were killed from the beginning of 2004 to Oct. 31, 2008 and 147,195 were wounded. The figures included Iraqi civilians, military and police but did not cover U.S. military deaths, insurgents, or foreigners, including contractors. And it did not include the first months of the war after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
The Associated Press reported similar figures in April based on government statistics obtained by the AP showing that the government had recorded 87,215 Iraqi deaths from 2005 to February 2009. The toll included violence ranging from catastrophic bombings to execution-style slayings.
Until the AP report, the government’s toll of Iraqi deaths had been one of the war’s most closely guarded secrets. Both supporters and opponents of the conflict have accused the other of manipulating the toll to sway public opinion.
The 85,694 represents about 0.3 percent of Iraq’s estimated 29 million population. In a sign of how significant the numbers are, that would be akin to the United States losing about 900,000 people over a similar period.
The ministry’s report came out late Tuesday as part of a larger study on human rights in the country. It described the years that followed the invasion, which toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime, as extremely violent.
“Through the terrorist attacks like explosions, assassinations, kidnappings and forced displacements, the outlawed groups have created these terrible figures,” it said.
Violence in Iraq has declined dramatically since the height of the fighting but almost every Iraqi family has a story of relatives killed, maimed or missing. One Baghdad resident, Ali Khalil, 27, from the Sadr City neighborhood whose father was shot in late 2006 by gunmen said he was not surprised by the government’s figures.
“I expect that the real numbers of the people killed are higher than this,” Khalil said. He added that he did not think the country would return to the high numbers of dead in the future because security has improved. “We have already lost dear ones, and we hope that our sadness and losses will cease.”
Iraq’s death toll continued to climb on Wednesday when three near simultaneous blasts struck the southern Shiite holy city of Karbala, killing at least six people.
According to the ministry’s report, the dead included 1,279 children and 2,334 women. At least 263 university professors, 21 judges, 95 lawyers and 269 journalists were killed — professions which were specifically targeted as the country descended into chaos.
According to the report, 2006 was the deadliest year with 32,622 killed or found dead. The toll for 2004 was 11,313, rising to 15,817 the next year. The second deadliest year in the period covered was 2007 with 19,155 killed or found dead. The toll fell to 6,787 in 2008, the lowest yearly count for the period.
The count also included 15,000 unidentified bodies that were buried after going unclaimed by families. An additional 10,000 people were also listed as missing although Human Rights Ministry official Kamail Amin said it was not known whether there was overlap between the missing and unidentified counts.
Amin said the missing figures were based on people who came to the ministry to report a missing relative, something that many Iraqis, who feared reprisals and were hesitant to draw attention to themselves, were loathe to do.
Significantly the report does not contain figures from 2003, a period during which there was no functioning Iraqi government.
“The situation was chaotic and there was an absence of government institutions. The whole country was in total anarchy,” Amin said.
The violence that has gripped Iraq made it increasingly difficult after 2003 to independently track death figures. Records were not always compiled centrally, the brutal insurgency sharply limited on-the-scene reporting. The U.S. military never shared its data.
At best, the numbers released by the Human Rights Ministry and those obtained by the AP are a minimum of the number who died.
Emmanuel d’Harcourt from the New York-based International Rescue Committee, who’s participated in mortality surveys in such places as Sudan and Sierra Leone, said the figures are undoubtedly low and that considering the challenges associated with counting those killed in the Iraq conflict, a true figure might never be reached.
“I would think that Iraq would be one of the most difficult places on Earth to count the dead,” he said.
The official who provided the data to the AP at the time estimated the actual number of deaths was 10 to 20 percent higher.
Combined with tallies based on hospital sources and media reports since the beginning of the war and an in-depth review of available evidence by the AP, the figures showed that more than 110,600 Iraqis had died in violence since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and up through early 2009.
The most recent numbers from Iraq Body Count, a private London-based group that has tracked civilian casualties since the war began, puts the number of civilian casualties as of Oct. 14 at 93,540.
The toll released Tuesday was based on death certificates issued by the Health Ministry. The tolls measure only violent deaths — people killed in attacks such as the shootings, bombings, mortar attacks and beheadings that have ravaged Iraq. They exclude indirect factors such as damage to infrastructure, health care and stress.
Some experts favor cluster surveys, in which conclusions are drawn from a select sampling of households. The largest cluster survey in Iraq was conducted in 2007 by the World Health Organization and the Iraqi government. It concluded that about 151,000 Iraqis had died from violence in the 2003-05 period, but that included insurgents.
A more controversial cluster study conducted between May and July 2006 by Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and Al-Mustansiriya University in Baghdad, published in the Lancet medical journal, estimated that 601,027 Iraqis had died due to violence.
Critics argue that such surveys are flawed in Iraq because the security situation prevents a proper sampling. They also have margins of error that could skew the numbers by the tens of thousands.
While the Pentagon maintains meticulous records of the number of American troops killed — at least 4,349 as of Wednesday — it does not publicly release comprehensive Iraqi casualty figures. American units around the country do compile figures, drawing them mostly from the Iraqi military. They are not released publicly but are used to determine trends.