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Iraqi death toll: Number's elusive, but people's fears are inescapable

By Leila Fadel - Mcclatchy Baghdad Bureau


Sunday, September 23, 2007

BAGHDAD -- As a journalist it's a question that's so hard to answer: How many have died in these four years due to violence?

In 2006 the medical journal The Lancet estimated that excess deaths in Iraq due to the war were 654,965, or 2.5 percent of the population. Iraq Body Count, which tracks civilian deaths, puts the number of documented deaths between 72,596 and 79,187.

For a reporter, it is difficult to know.

The official numbers differ if you can get them, and numbers leaked to us from Iraqi ministries are incomplete pictures.

This week a poll by the British market research company, Opinion Research Business, put the number at 1,220,580 deaths that were not natural causes, since the 2003 invasion. According to the poll, one in two households in Baghdad has lost someone.

One in two households. Can you imagine? If you haven't lost someone, then your neighbor has. The next most deadly provinces were Diyala and Nineva in the north, notable because Baghdad and Diyala are inhabited by both Sunnis and Shiites.

The Sunni Anbar province, Shiite Karbala in the south and Arbil in Kurdistan were not included in the poll.

Among those polled, 22 percent of people had lost at least one person in their household due to a non-natural cause. Five percent of them lost two people, 1 percent lost three and less than 1 percent lost four or more.

One thing piqued my interest: Nearly half of the people polled who had lost someone in their household said it was due to a gunshot wound.

While the military has touted the drop in car bombs as a major victory, that only accounts for 20 percent of the deaths. Forty-eight percent of people were shot to death. The murder rate implies sectarian violence.

I thought back to a media luncheon with a U.S. general earlier this month. The general asked the media to please change the perception that Sunnis and Shiites were killing one another in Iraq. He asked that when we go back to the United States, we try to change that perception.

I couldn't believe it. Doesn't he know? Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq don't necessarily hate one another, but right now they have no choice but to fear one another.

The fear is oppressive in Baghdad. If you're a Shiite and don't agree with the Mahdi Army, there is little you can do. To express your dismay is a death wish.

Sunnis have told me that in the past they didn't question Sunni extremists that controlled their neighborhoods; at least they protected them from Shiite militias. The fear is very real. Our Iraqi staff, both Sunni and Shiite, are friends. But the Sunni man does not visit the Shiite man in his Mahdi Army neighborhood; he knows it could be his end.

Shiites don't stroll through Sunni enclaves of Baghdad and Sunni son-in-laws and Shiite in-laws often can't visit each other in this divided city.

I told the general this, and he asked how I could explain some of the Sunni and Shiite marriages he had come across.

Maybe he could explain to me the high divorce rate among Sunnis and Shiites. Marriages between Sunnis and Shiites were once commonplace here, but now very few people intermarry. Maybe he could explain to me why Sunnis map their routes to avoid Shiite neighborhoods and vice versa. Maybe he could explain to me the fear I feel every day for my staff and for myself.

Iraqis are not barbaric, and all Sunnis and Shiites don't hate one another, but right now the fear trumps all. No one wants to end up a corpse on the side of the street. This is the reality that we report every day. This is the reality.

:: Article nr. 36585 sent on 24-sep-2007 06:11 ECT


Link: www.sacbee.com/110/story/392583.html

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