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WAR'S TOLL

Some 5,500 civilians killed since war began, survey says

Violent deaths said to be on rise

BAGHDAD -- Punctured by bullets or torn by bombs, broken bodies keep coming into Baghdad's main morgue. Some are dumped on the blood-splattered concrete floor. Others lie naked on metal gurneys in a hallway, waiting for autopsies as flies buzz in the spring heat.

Even before the spasm of bloodshed that began early last month, Iraqis were suffering a heavy toll from crime, tribal revenge killings, terrorist bombings, and fighting between coalition troops and insurgents.

An Associated Press survey of the deaths in the first 12 months of the occupation found that more than 5,000 Iraqis died violently in Baghdad and in three provinces. The toll from both criminal and political violence ran dramatically higher than the number of violent deaths before the war, according to the statistics from morgues.

There are no reliable figures for places like Fallujah and Najaf that have seen surges in fighting since early April.

Indeed, there is no precise count for Iraq as a whole on how many people have been killed, nor is there a breakdown of deaths caused by the different types of attacks. The US military, the occupation authority, and Iraqi government agencies say they don't have the ability to track civilian deaths.

But the AP survey of morgues in Baghdad and the provinces of Karbala, Kirkuk, and Tikrit found 5,558 violent deaths recorded from May 1, 2003, when President Bush declared an end to major combat operations, to April 30. Officials at morgues for three more of Iraq's 18 provinces either didn't have numbers or declined to release them.

The survey was not a comprehensive compilation of the nationwide death toll, but was a sampling intended to assess the levels of violence. Figures for violent deaths in the months before the war showed a far lower rate.

That doesn't mean Iraq is a more dangerous place than during Saddam Hussein's regime. At least 300,000 people were murdered by security forces and buried in mass graves during the dictator's 23-year rule, US officials say, and human rights workers put the number closer to 500,000.

Still, the morgue figures, which exclude trauma deaths from accidents like car wrecks and falls, highlight the insecurity Iraqis feel from the high level of criminal and political violence and underline the challenges that coalition and Iraqi forces face in trying to bring peace.

In Baghdad, a city of about 5.6 million, 4,279 people were recorded killed in the 12 months through April 30, according to figures provided by Kais Hassan, director of statistics at Baghdad's Medicolegal Institute, which administers the city's morgues.

''Before the war, there was a strong government, strong security. There were a lot of police on the streets, and there were no illegal weapons," he said. ''Now there are few controls. There is crime, revenge killings, so much violence."

The figure does not include most people killed in large terrorist bombings, Hassan said.

Morgue records do not document the circumstances surrounding the 4,279 deaths -- whether the victims were killed by insurgents, occupation forces, criminals, or others. The records list only the cause of a death, such as gunshot or explosion, Hassan said.

It is the police's responsibility to determine why a person dies. But Nouri, the official at the Interior Ministry, which oversees the police, said the agency lacks the resources to investigate all killings or to keep track of the causes of death.

US forces have records for the numbers of claims for compensation from Iraqis for personal injury, deaths of family members, or for property damage caused by US military action in noncombat situations. Some $3 million has been paid to about 5,000 claimants, American officials said last month. About 8,000 claims had been rejected, and 3,000 were pending, they said.

The officials declined to provide a breakdown of the figures to show how many claims were for deaths. They also said a single incident involving US forces could lead to multiple claims.

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