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Who is counting the bodies in Iraq?

A funeral in Najaf, Iraq

By Natalia Antelava
BBC News, Baghdad

"We don't do body counts." These were the words of Gen Tommy Franks, the man in charge of the US-led invasion of Iraq.

But more than six-and-a-half years after the invasion, the body count has become a measure of success and failure in Iraq.

In November, officials announced that violent deaths were at their lowest since 2003. That was an important example of progress in Iraq, according to the Iraqi government.

Smoke billows after an explosion in the Iraqi capital Baghdad on 8 December 2009.
Most of the big explosions since August occurred near official buildings

Eight days after the announcement, five massive explosions went off almost simultaneously in different parts of Baghdad, killing and wounding hundreds.

These well-co-ordinated, sophisticated attacks targeted symbols of the state - not only government buildings but also universities and state-run institutions.

The explosions were similar in scale to devastating bomb attacks in August and in October.

The country's commander-in-chief and Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is now under increased pressure to provide better security for the capital.

After all, that's what he is credited with doing best.

Serious questions

Mr Maliki's political reputation was built largely on his apparent success in bringing violence levels down following the US troop surge in 2007.

HISTORY OF BIG ATTACKS
Mar 2004: 171 killed in bombings in Baghdad and Karbala
Nov 2006: 202 killed in multiple blasts in Baghdad
Mar 2007: 152 killed in lorry bombing in Talafar
Apr 2007: 191 killed in car bombings in Baghdad
Aug 2007: More than 500 killed in attacks on villages near Sinjar
Aug 2009: 95 killed in lorry bombs in Baghdad
Oct 2009: 155 killed in twin lorry bomb attacks in Baghdad
Dec 2009: 127 killed in a series of car bombs in Baghdad

Source: News agencies, BBC

Now, this image of a man who could keep Baghdad safe has been tarnished.

Across the city, as dust settled over the bomb sites and grief took the place of the initial shock and panic, some serious questions began to emerge.

One of them is how many died in the explosions?

The number, according to the international and independent Iraqi media is more than one hundred, but the official toll is 77.

There are plenty of examples of similar discrepancies in numbers.

Round-up

Two days before the big bombings, explosives went off in a school in Sadr City, a Shia suburb of Baghdad.

The crater left by a bomb at a Baghdad school
We go to the bomb sites - we know how many people really die
Hindt al-Bedeiri
Iraqi journalist

Police sources told us that six children were killed, but Iraqi officials said one student had died.

There was a real difference in coverage of the event as well.

It grabbed international headlines, but Iraqi state TV led on political progress and the achievements of the government.

The school explosion was mentioned in a 40-second round-up at the very end of the news bulletin.

"The government is manipulating the figures," says journalist Hindt al-Bedeiri who writes for the pro-opposition al-Mashraq newspaper.

"Politicians are lying to us because they are worried about the election. They are looking after their own interests. We go to the bomb sites - we know how many people really die," she says.

Official numbers

But the government insists that its numbers are correct.

We are not lying... There is no justification to distorting this kind of information. It's disrespectful. Every death, every person matters
Saad al-Mutalibi
Government adviser

"The media are interested in blowing the situation out of proportion, and certain networks and channels are trying to boost the numbers," says Saad al-Mutalibi, an adviser to the Iraqi government.

"I believe these official numbers because they come from the Ministry of Health".

For their part, health authorities receive their figures from hospitals.

Shortly after Tuesday's bombings, the BBC visited one of Baghdad's hospitals.

The total number of injured given by administrative staff was significantly lower than the estimates provided by doctors who were receiving patients.

One of the doctors, surgeon Tara Barki, said she believed the government was trying to downplay violence.

"We have explosions every day, but most of them are small and scattered and so they either receive no media attention or are camouflaged by the government," Dr Barki said.

'Deaths matter'

But the government denies manipulating figures.

"We are not lying, and I can guarantee you that the office of Prime Minister Maliki would never lie about the figures," said Mr Moutalibi, the government adviser.

COUNTING THE DEAD
In October 2009, the Iraqi government reported that 85,000 Iraqis (civilians, military and police) died in violence between 2004 and 2008
Iraq Body Count: Campaign group counts from media reports and official figures. It says that 94,705 - 103,336 civilians have died since invasion
Lancet study in October 2006 estimated 655,000 people died in Iraq as a result of the invasion

"There is no justification to distorting this kind of information. It's disrespectful. Every death, every person matters."

The government says these explosions should not undermine the progress it has made.

In December, and after months of political wrangling, Iraqi politicians finally agreed to have an election on 7 March.

The deal was hailed as a big political achievement, crucial to the future of Iraq.

But violence, it seems, could still be dictating the rules of the game.

The outcome of the election, the timing of the US withdrawal and Iraq's ability to attract much-needed investment, could all depend on how safe this country is - or is perceived to be.

Statistics are irrelevant for mothers who are still losing their children in Iraq.

But whatever Gen Tommy Franks said nearly seven years ago, today Iraq's politicians are indeed doing a body count.

Civilian deaths in Iraq



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