BAGHDAD -- At least 50,000 Iraqis have died violently since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, according to statistics from the Baghdad morgue, the Iraqi Health Ministry and other agencies - a toll 20,000 higher than previously acknowledged by the Bush administration.
Many more Iraqis are believed to have been killed but have not been counted because of serious lapses in recording the number of deaths in the chaotic first year after the invasion, when there was no functioning Iraqi government, and because of continued spotty reporting nationwide.
The toll, which is dominated by civilians but likely also includes some security forces and insurgents, is daunting: Proportionately, it is as if 600,000 Americans had been killed nationwide during the past three years. In the same period, at least 2,521 U.S. service members have been killed in Iraq.
Iraqi government officials involved in compiling the statistics say violent deaths in some regions have been grossly undercounted, notably in the troubled province of Anbar, where local health workers are often prevented from compiling the data because of violence, security crackdowns, electrical shortages and failing telephone networks.
The Health Ministry acknowledged the undercount. In addition, the ministry said its figures exclude the three provinces that make up the semiautonomous northern region of Kurdistan because Kurdish officials do not provide death toll figures to the government in Baghdad.
In the three years since Saddam Hussein's regime was toppled, the Bush administration has rarely offered civilian death tolls. Nongovernmental organizations have made estimates by tallying news accounts; the Los Angeles Times attempted to reach a comprehensive toll by obtaining figures from the Baghdad morgue and the Health Ministry and checking those numbers against a sampling of local health departments for undercounts.
The Health Ministry gathers numbers from hospitals in the capital and the outlying provinces. If a victim dies at the hospital or arrives dead, medical officials there will issue a death certificate. Relatives will claim the body directly from the hospital and arrange for a speedy burial according to Muslim beliefs.
If the morgue receives a body - usually those which are deemed suspicious deaths - officials there issue the death certificate.
Health Ministry officials said that because death certificates are issued and counted separately, the two data sets are not overlapping.
The Baghdad morgue received 30,204 bodies from 2003 through mid-2006, while the Health Ministry said it had documented 18,933 deaths from what were described as military clashes and terrorist attacks between April 5, 2004, and June 1, 2006. Taken together, the violent death toll reaches 49,137. However, samples obtained from local health departments in other provinces show an undercount that brings the total number well beyond 50,000.
The documented cases show a country descending further into violence.
At the Baghdad morgue, the vast majority of victims have been shot execution-style. Many show signs of torture - drill holes, burns, missing eyes and limbs, officials there say. Others have been strangled, beheaded, stabbed or beaten.
The morgue records show a predominantly civilian toll; the hospital records gathered by the Health Ministry do not distinguish among civilians, combatants and security forces.
But Health Ministry records do differentiate among causes of death. Almost 75 percent of those who died violently were killed in what were classified as "terrorist acts," typically bombings, the records show. The other 25 percent were killed in what were classified as "military clashes." A health official described the victims as "innocent bystanders," many of them shot by Iraqi or American troops, caught in crossfire or shot accidentally at checkpoints. There are few demarcations or front lines in Iraq, and some of the dead might have been insurgents or militia members.
"The way to think about the violence is that it's not just the insurgent attacks that matter," said David Lake, a member of the Center for the Study of Civil War, an international group. "What we should be concerned about is the sense of security at the individual level if the fear has gotten out of control."
Societies fall apart when people stop believing the government can protect them and instead turn to militias for protection, said Lake, who is a professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego.
"The question is, have we crossed that threshold? My sense is, we probably have, and that's why I'm worried about the long-term outcome."
Louise Roug, in Baghdad, and Doug Smith, in Los Angeles, write for the Los Angeles Times.
Killed in Iraq
As of Friday, at least 2,521 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003.
Sgt. Sirlou C. Cuaresma, 25, Chicago; died Wednesday in Baghdad from a non-combat related cause; assigned to 68th Engineer Company, 62nd Engineer Battalion, 13th Containment Command (Expeditionary), Fort Hood, Texas.
Lance Cpl. Nicholas J. Whyte, 21, New York; killed Wednesday in Anbar province; assigned to 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force, Camp Lejeune, N.C.
Army Sgt. Jason J. Buzzard, 31, Constantinople, Calif.; killed Wednesday when an explosive struck his vehicle in Baghdad; assigned to 2nd Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, Fort Hood, Texas.
[ Associated Press]