BAGHDAD, Iraq - Operations by U.S. and multinational forces and Iraqi police are killing twice as many Iraqis - most of them civilians - as attacks by insurgents, according to statistics compiled by the Iraqi Health Ministry and obtained exclusively by Knight Ridder.
According to the ministry, the interim Iraqi government recorded 3,487 Iraqi deaths in 15 of the country's 18 provinces from April 5 - when the ministry began compiling the data - until Sept. 19. Of those, 328 were women and children. Another 13,720 Iraqis were injured, the ministry said.
While most of the dead are believed to be civilians, the data include an unknown number of police and Iraqi national guardsmen. Many Iraqi deaths, especially of insurgents, are never reported, so the actual number of Iraqis killed in fighting could be significantly higher.
During the same period, 432 American soldiers were killed.
Iraqi officials said the statistics proved that U.S. airstrikes intended for insurgents also were killing large numbers of innocent civilians. Some say these casualties are undermining popular acceptance of the American-backed interim government.
That suggests that more aggressive U.S. military operations, which the Bush administration has said are being planned to clear the way for nationwide elections scheduled for January, could backfire and strengthen the insurgency.
American military officials said "damage will happen" in their effort to wrest control of some areas from insurgents. They blamed the insurgents for embedding themselves in communities, saying that's endangering innocent people.
Lt. Col. Steve Boylan, an American military spokesman, said the insurgents were living in residential areas, sometimes in homes filled with munitions.
"As long as they continue to do that, they are putting the residents at risk," Boylan said. "We will go after them."
Boylan said the military conducted intelligence to determine whether a home housed insurgents before striking it. While damage would happen, the airstrikes were "extremely precise," he said. And he said that any attacks by the multinational forces were "in coordination with the interim government."
The Health Ministry statistics indicate that more children have been killed around Ramadi and Fallujah than in Baghdad, though those cities together have only one-fifth of the Iraqi capital's population.
According to the statistics, 59 children were killed in Anbar province - a hotbed of the Sunni Muslim insurgency that includes the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah - compared with 56 children in Baghdad. The ministry defines children as anyone younger than 12.
"When there are military clashes, we see innocent people die," said Dr. Walid Hamed, a member of the operations section of the Health Ministry, which compiles the statistics.
Juan Cole, a history professor at University of Michigan who specializes in Shiite Islam, said the widespread casualties meant that coalition forces already had lost the political campaign: "I think they lost the hearts and minds a long time ago."
"And they are trying to keep U.S. military casualties to a minimum in the run-up to the U.S. elections" by using airstrikes instead of ground forces, he said.
American military officials say they're targeting only terrorists and are aggressively working to spare innocent people nearby.
Nearly a third of the Iraqi dead - 1,122 - were killed in August, according to the statistics. May was the second deadliest month, with 749 Iraqis killed, and 319 were killed in June, the least violent month. Most of those killed lived in Baghdad; the ministry found that 1,068 had died in the capital.
Many Iraqis said they thought the numbers showed that the multinational forces disregarded their lives.
"The Americans do not care about the Iraqis. They don't care if they get killed, because they don't care about the citizens," said Abu Mohammed, 50, who was a major general in Saddam Hussein's army in Baghdad. "The Americans keep criticizing Saddam for the mass graves. How many graves are the Americans making in Iraq?"
At his fruit stand in southern Baghdad, Raid Ibraham, 24, theorized: "The Americans keep attacking the cities not to keep the security situation stable, but so they can stay in Iraq and control the oil."
Others blame the multinational forces for allowing security to disintegrate, inviting terrorists from everywhere and threatening the lives of everyday Iraqis.
"Anyone who hates America has come here to fight: Saddam's supporters, people who don't have jobs, other Arab fighters. All these people are on our streets," said Hamed, the ministry official. "But everyone is afraid of the Americans, not the fighters. And they should be."
Iraqi officials said about two-thirds of the Iraqi deaths were caused by multinational forces and police; the remaining third died from insurgent attacks. The ministry began separating attacks by multinational and police forces and insurgents June 10.
From that date until Sept. 10, 1,295 Iraqis were killed in clashes with multinational forces and police versus 516 killed in terrorist operations, the ministry said. The ministry defined terrorist operations as explosive devices in residential areas, car bombs or assassinations.
The ministry said it didn't have any statistics for the three provinces in the north: Arbil, Dohuk and Sulaimaniyah, ethnic Kurdish areas that generally have been more peaceful than the rest of the country.
The Health Ministry is the only organization that attempts to track deaths through government agencies. The U.S. military said it kept estimates, but it refused to release them. Ahmed al Rawi, the communications director of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Baghdad, said the organization didn't have the staffing to compile such information.
The Health Ministry reports to interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, whom the United States appointed in June.
Iraqi health and hospital officials agreed that the statistics captured only part of the death toll.
To compile the data, the Health Ministry calls the directors general of the 15 provinces and asks how many deaths related to the war were reported at hospitals. The tracking of such information has become decentralized since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime because both hospitals and morgues issue death certificates now. And families often bury their dead without telling any government agencies or are treated at facilities that don't report to the government.
The ministry is convinced that nearly all of those reported dead are civilians, not insurgents. Most often, a family member wouldn't report it if his or her relative died fighting for rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia or another insurgent force, and the relative would be buried immediately, said Dr. Shihab Ahmed Jassim, another member of the ministry's operations section.
"People who participate in the conflict don't come to the hospital. Their families are afraid they will be punished," said Dr. Yasin Mustaf, the assistant manager of al Kimdi Hospital near Baghdad's poor Sadr City neighborhood. "Usually, the innocent people come to the hospital. That is what the numbers show."
The numbers also exclude those whose bodies were too mutilated to be recovered at car bombings or other attacks, the ministry said.
Ministry officials said they didn't know how big the undercount was. "We have nothing to do with politics," Jassim said.
Other independent organizations have estimated that 7,000 to 12,000 Iraqis have been killed since May 1, 2003, when President Bush declared an end to major combat operations.
Iraqis are aware of the casualties that are due to U.S. forces, and nearly everyone has a story to tell.
At al Kimdi Hospital, Dr. Mumtaz Jaber, a vascular surgeon, said that three months ago, his 3-year-old nephew, his sister and his brother-in-law were driving in Baghdad at about 9 p.m. when they saw an American checkpoint. His nephew was killed.
"They didn't stop fast enough. The Americans shot them immediately," Jaber said. "This is how so many die."
At the Baghdad morgue, Dr. Quasis Hassan Salem said he saw a family of eight brought in: three women, three men and two children. They were sleeping on their roof last month because it was hot inside. A military helicopter shot at them and killed them: "I don't know why."
U.S. officials said any allegations that soldiers had recklessly killed Iraqi citizens were investigated at the Iraqi Assistance Center in downtown Baghdad.
"There is no way to refute" such stories, said Robert Callahan, a spokesman at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. "All you can do is tell them the truth and hope it eventually will get through."
Knight Ridder special correspondent Omar Jassim contributed to this report.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004