BAGHDAD - Nearly five months into a security strategy that involves thousands of additional U.S. and Iraqi troops patrolling Baghdad, the number of unidentified bodies found on the streets of the capital was 41 percent higher in June than in January, according to unofficial Health Ministry statistics.
During the month of June, 453 unidentified corpses, some bound, blindfolded, and bearing signs of torture, were found in Baghdad, according to morgue data provided by a Health Ministry official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.
In January, 321 corpses were discovered in the capital, a total that fell steadily until April but then rose sharply over the last two months, the statistics show.
Overall, the level of violent civilian deaths in Iraq is declining, according to the U.S. military and Health Ministry statistics, and there has been a steady drop in fatalities from mass-casualty bombings that have torn through outdoor markets, university bus stops and crowds assembled to collect food rations.
But the number of unidentified bodies found on the streets is considered a key indicator of the malignancy of sectarian strife. While the declining number of bombing victims suggests that efforts to control violence are showing some success, the daily slayings of individuals, in aggregate, speak to an enduring level of aggression.
"That's the cancer that keeps eating the neighborhoods," Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, said at a meeting with reporters Saturday. "It never stops. It's a tit for tat. It's a cycle of violence that has to be broken."
These individual slayings are often attributed to Shiite militias and described as revenge killings or acts of sectarian cleansing in response to catastrophic suicide bombings by the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq. But such characterizations oversimplify a landscape of violence that includes Sunnis executing individual Shiites, and attackers dispatching their victims for other criminal, personal or political motives.
"I tend to think al-Qaeda is public enemy number one," Petraeus said. "And unfortunately, you know, it's the one that really sort of gave the raison d'etre for militias. It becomes the justification for an awful lot of what is done by the Shia extremists, Shia militias."
One of the main goals of the Baghdad security plan, launched in mid-February as the first of nearly 30,000 additional American soldiers arrived in Iraq, was to halt sectarian murders.
But even before the plan went into effect, the number of bodies discovered had fallen well below the levels of last fall. In October, for instance, 1,782 unidentified bodies were found in Baghdad, according to the United Nations, citing official statistics provided by the Health Ministry.
By January, the total dropped to 321 in the capital, according to the statistics provided to The Washington Post, followed by 294 in February, 272 in March and 182 in April. But the figure spiked upward to 433 in May and 453 last month. A Health Ministry spokesman could not be reached for comment on the statistics despite several attempts.
Calculating the numbers of people who die in Iraq is notoriously difficult because there is no transparent or reliable system for tracking and distributing official estimates. Various ministries keep different statistics on fatalities, and Iraqi government officials planned to meet this week to discuss how to collect and distribute a single set of numbers.
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The statistics provided by the Health Ministry official put the number of civilian fatalities in June across Baghdad and other provinces at 2,097, excluding the three that make up the northern Kurdish region, which is more peaceful. This number is 34 percent lower than the 3,190 civilian deaths the ministry recorded in January, but above a low point reached in April, when 1,664 civilians died, according to the official.
The figures were higher than those reported Sunday by Iraqi television stations and news services, citing Iraqi ministries, which said that in June, 1,227 civilians died violently in Iraq, a decrease of 36 percent compared with May, representing the lowest monthly total since the Baghdad security plan began. The statistics provided to The Post indicated that the decrease from May to June was 6 percent.
The chief Iraqi spokesman for the Baghdad security plan, Brig. Gen. Qassim Atta, said he could not provide any statistics on fatalities in Baghdad or elsewhere in Iraq. He said that sectarian murders and bombings have decreased but that attacks against U.S. military and Iraqi security forces have risen because there are more of them on the streets.
"They are conducting their operations in the hot areas," he said. "This made them subject to terrorist operations."
One trend that is easier to track is the deaths from widely reported mass-casualty bombings -- often suicide car bomb attacks that are the hallmark of Sunni insurgent groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq. In June, the number of deaths from such bombings -- individual attacks that killed at least 20 people -- dropped to its lowest level of the year, 134 fatalities, according to a Post analysis.
Victims of sectarian killings are often difficult to identify because ID cards are taken before the bodies, often disfigured or beheaded, are dumped in the streets. In Iraq, people disappear in countless ways; some are pulled out of cars or living rooms by gunmen. Families are left to search morgues and hospitals, and sometimes pay exorbitant sums for information about their missing relatives.
The last time Omar Samir Abdul Khadir, 28, saw his older brother was when he left their house two weeks ago in the Sunni Baghdad neighborhood of Adhamiyah to buy jugs of diesel fuel from a friend. Gunmen in white SUVs approached the brother, Abdul Khadir Samir Abdul Khadir, and pulled him and several companions off the street. While some were later released in eastern Baghdad, Abdul Khadir, who had a clip of Sunni religious music in his cellphone, has not surfaced, his brother Omar said.
"People said that he was killed," Omar said. "But we have not found the body."
Omar has canvassed the hospitals and the morgue but has found no sign of his brother, a generator repairman and father of three. Omar has sold his car to help assume his brother's role as provider for several relatives.
"The people that I asked to help look for him are asking for money, and I don't have enough money," he said. "But we won't stop looking."
Special correspondents Naseer Nouri, Salih Dehema and Saad al-Izzi in Baghdad, staff researcher Robert E. Thomason in Washington and other Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.
© 2007 The Washington Post Company