An average of more than 100 civilians per day were killed in Iraq last month, the United Nations reported Tuesday, registering what appears to be the highest official monthly tally of violent deaths since the fall of Baghdad.
The death toll, drawn from Iraqi government agencies, was the most precise measurement of civilian deaths provided by any government organization since the invasion and represented a substantial increase over the figures in daily news media reports.
Injured Iraqi men, victims of an explosion in Kufa, are helped inside a hospital in Najaf July 18, 2006. A car bomb hit a group of labourers after they boarded a minibus in a market in a Shi'ite city in Iraq on Tuesday, killing 59 people and sparking clashes between protesters and police, witnesses and officials said. REUTERS/Ali Abu Shish (IRAQ)
Contributing to the trend cited by the United Nations, a suicide car bomber killed at least 53 people and wounded at least 105 in the holy Shiite city of Kufa on Tuesday after he lured a throng of day laborers to his van with the offer of work.
The attack, one of the bloodiest this year, struck at the heart of Shiite Islam — Kufa is a stronghold of the powerful Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr and the site of a major shrine — and aggravated sectarian fury.
United Nations officials said Tuesday that the number of violent deaths had climbed steadily since at least last summer. During the first six months of this year, the civilian death toll jumped more than 77 percent, from 1,778 in January to 3,149 in June, the organization said.
This sharp upward trend reflected the dire security situation in Iraq as sectarian violence has worsened and Iraqi and American government forces have been unable to stop it.
In its report, the United Nations said that 14,338 civilians had died violently in Iraq in the first six months of the year.
United Nations officials said they had based their figures on tallies provided by two Iraqi agencies: the Ministry of Health, which tracks violent deaths recorded at hospitals around the country; and Baghdad’s central morgue, where unidentified bodies are delivered, a vast majority of which met violent deaths.
Each agency issues death warrants for the bodies it receives, government officials say, and there is no overlap between the two populations of victims.
The United States government and military have not made public any specific figures on Iraqi civilian casualties or said whether they are keeping count. The United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq published the new tallies in its bimonthly human rights report, issued Tuesday. It was the first time that the United Nations had published combined death statistics from the two agencies.
According to the report, 1,778 civilians were killed in January, 2,165 in February, 2,378 in March, 2,284 in April, 2,669 in May and 3,149 in June.
The totals represent an enormous increase over figures published by media organizations and by nongovernmental organizations that track these trends.
The Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, an independent Web site that uses news reports to do its tallies, reported that at least 738 died in June, and another 969 the previous month.
The United Nations report said that in recent months, “the overwhelming majority of casualties were reported in Baghdad.”
The capital has been the focus of raging sectarian violence, particularly since the bombing in late February of a major Shiite shrine in Samarra, which set off several days of bloodshed, widened a rift between the Sunni Arab and Shiite communities and stoked fears that the country was sliding toward full-scale civil war.
The Ministry of Health under Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari had not fulfilled requests by the United Nations for civilian casualty statistics, officials said.
“There has been a great deal of sensitivity there and a great deal of concern about providing figures,” Gianni Magazzeni, chief of the human rights office of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq, said in an interview.
Mr. Magazzeni praised Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki for his efforts to address human rights concerns “more forcefully” than his predecessors.
“There is a greater willingness of the new government to be more forthcoming,” he said. “The more information we have, the more information we can provide — including the number of people who have been violently killed — the more the government and others will be able to take action and address some of these issues.”
The attack in Kufa on Tuesday occurred near a major Shiite shrine, at an intersection where men, down on their luck and out of work, would gather each morning hoping that someone would hire them for a day of manual labor and the promise of a small wage.
On Tuesday, a man drove up in a van, leaned out of the window and made an offer of work, witnesses said. As the men pressed in close, and some started to climb in the back, the driver pushed a detonator and the van exploded, witnesses said.
The blast scattered bodies and street vendors’ carts, blackened nearby walls, dyed the ground red with blood and ignited pandemonium in the street. When Iraqi police officers arrived, the crowd pelted them with stones. According to The Associated Press, many demanded that the militia loyal to Mr. Sadr, the cleric, take over security of the city.
Mr. Sadr counts an enormous following among the Shiite poor and dispossessed in Baghdad and southern Iraq. The militia loyal to him, the Mahdi Army, has been blamed for many recent kidnappings and assassinations of Sunni Arabs.
Kufa and the nearby Shiite holy city of Najaf — because of their predominantly Shiite populations and tight control by Shiite militias and the Shiite-dominated security forces — have largely been spared the sort of sectarian violence that has ravaged mixed cities like Baghdad and Baquba.
But Tuesday’s attack, coupled with several other suicide attacks this year in Kufa and Najaf, suggested an ominous deterioration in security even in Iraq’s demographically homogenous areas.
The attack underscored the futility, at least in the short term, of the government’s latest efforts to short-circuit the vicious cycle of sectarian violence that has defined life in Iraq.
Iraq’s elected officials condemned the attack, which came a day after dozens of gunmen believed to be Sunni Arabs rampaged through a mostly Shiite market area in the town of Mahmudiya, killing at least 48 civilians and wounding scores, according to police officials.
The prime minister vowed to find and punish those responsible for the Kufa attack, according to news agencies.
The Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni Arab organization, issued a statement urging the country “to be wise and rational instead of drifting into the abyss,” and called upon the country’s political and religious leaders to meet and discuss ways “to lead Iraq out of this dark tunnel.”
“God knows what comes next,” the statement said.
Assad Abu Ghalal al-Taiee, the governor of Najaf Province, blamed the attack on insurgents from the volatile region south of Baghdad that includes Mahmudiya and Latifiya, where Sunni Arab fighters have frequently clashed with security forces and Shiite militias.
“These two towns are exporting terror to Najaf and other provinces,” he said. “If we do not provide a solution, all the areas close to them will be a target for the terrorists who come from there.”
The American energy secretary, Samuel W. Bodman, who met with Iraq’s oil and electricity ministers in Baghdad, had a rosy view of progress here since his last visit in 2003.
“The situation seems far more stable than when I was here two or three years ago,” he said in an interview in the fortified Green Zone. “The security seems better, people are more relaxed. There is an optimism, at least among the people I talked to.”
Violence scarred other parts of Iraq on Tuesday, as well. A homemade bomb exploded near a garage outside Kirkuk, killing eight people, including six police officers, according to Brig. Hamid Abdul al-Jibouri of the Iraqi Army.
In Falluja, gunmen invaded the home of a police captain and shot him dead, the police reported. Four police officers in Baquba were killed by gunmen, a police official said, requesting anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record. And in Mosul, gunmen killed a recruit for the Iraqi Army, another police official said.
Paul von Zielbauer contributed reporting for this article from Baghdad, and Iraqi employees of The New York Times from Falluja, Kirkuk, Kufa and Mosul.
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company