Cover up? Iraq government quashes data on civilian deaths
Michael Roston
Published: Thursday April 26, 2007
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A day after the United Nations criticized the Iraqi government for withholding periodically-reported data on the number of civilian deaths in the country, a top human rights group suggested the move was linked to political calculations in the United States.

"Is it a coincidence when George W. Bush appears on Charlie Rose and asserts as fact that sectarian violence was down in Baghdad?" Sarah Leah Whitson, Director of the Middle East Program at Human Rights Watch said to RAW STORY. "How is it that he's making that assertion, and for the first time, after the United Nations has published ten reports on the situation, this is the first that doesn't have the data?"

She added, "Is it just a coincidence that when we've established benchmarks for the Iraqi government to show they are in control of the security situation, they withhold the only evidence that might hold the answer?"

Yesterday, the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq released its latest update on violence in the country. The Government of Iraq withheld key data on the number of recorded deaths, and the manner of those deaths.

"Unlike previous reports, the new UNAMI Quarterly Human Rights report does not contain official statistics of violent deaths regularly gathered by the Ministry of Health and the Medico-Legal Institute in Baghdad," according to a statement delivered by Michèle Montas, Spokesperson for United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. "This is because the Iraqi Government decided not to make such data available to UNAMI."

UN Human Rights Officer Ivana Vucco essentially accused the Iraqi government of attempting to cover up the true scale of the violence.

"Unofficially in follow-up meetings we were told that the government was concerned that people would misconstrue the figures to portray a grim situation," Vucco said in Baghdad.

The Secretary-General criticized the move, and said that UNAMI planned to encourage the Iraqi government to release the data.

"This is a matter of regret because UNAMI reports have been regarded as a credible source of information regarding developments in the human rights situation in Iraq," Ban's spokeswoman said. "The Mission will continue to speak with the Iraqi authorities and urge them to provide the necessary information."

Human Rights Watch's Whitson said that the move by the Iraqi government to hold up the statistics was similar to American policy on gathering wartime civilian death data.

"They're just taking a page from the US on this," she argued. "In the 1991 Gulf War, the US kept records of civilian casualties, but in this war, they've refused to do it. Parties to the conflict have a legal duty to keep this information because it goes directly to evidence on the impact of war. How can you pretend to be protecting civilians if you're not keeping records?"

RAW STORY contacted US Central Command in Baghdad Wednesday night for comment but did not receive a reply. However, the Los Angeles Times today reported that the US Embassy supported the decision of the Iraqi government to withhold data on civilian deaths.

"'There were sometimes concerns with political motivations' in the release of statistics, one U.S. Embassy official said, referring to the sectarian and ethnic polarization in Maliki's government," according to Tina Susman. "The prime minister's aim is to have 'one voice' from the government delivering numbers that have been consolidated and verified, to prevent such things as double-counting, the official said."

Human Rights Watch's Whitson responded that the Iraqi government had not itself made this case to the United Nations when it said it would withhold the data.

"It may be the same inadequate, shitty data that they had before, but they didn't respond to UNAMI, they didn't say they need to fix the data, they didn't give any reason for withholding it," she said.

The Human Rights Watch researcher also worried that the Iraqi government's next move could be to further cover up the scale of violence in Iraq.

"Unlike the US, Iraq has not refused to look at the facts, but now they're keeping it secret, and I wouldn't be surprised if their next step is to stop keeping records at all," Whitson warned.

In related news, the McClatchy-Tribune Newspapers reported yesterday that the Bush administration is no longer counting deaths from car bombings in its civilian fatality estimates.

"Car bombs and other explosive devices have killed thousands of Iraqis in the past three years, but the administration doesn't include them in the casualty counts it has been citing as evidence that the surge of additional U.S. forces is beginning to defuse tensions between Shiite and Sunni Muslims," wrote the news service's Nancy Youssef. "President Bush explained why in a television interview on Tuesday. 'If the standard of success is no car bombings or suicide bombings, we have just handed those who commit suicide bombings a huge victory,' he told TV interviewer Charlie Rose."

With additional reporting from wire services.