BAGHDAD – A new U.S. military tally puts the death toll of Iraqi civilians and security forces in the bloodiest years of the war thousands below Iraqi government figures.
The little-noticed body count is the most extensive data on Iraqi war casualties ever released by the American military. It tallied deaths of almost 77,000 Iraqis between January 2004 and August 2008.
But the tally falls short of the estimated 85,694 deaths of civilians and security officials between January 2004 and Oct. 31, 2008, as counted last year by the Iraqi Human Rights Ministry.
Casualty figures in the U.S.-led war in Iraq have been hotly disputed because of the high political stakes in a conflict opposed by many countries and a large portion of the American public. Critics on each side of the divide accuse the other of manipulating the death toll to sway opinion.
“Even casualty rates are a political issue in Iraq,” said Samer Muscati, a Middle East and North Africa researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch.
The new data was quietly posted on the U.S. Central Command website without explanation in July, and a spokesman at its military headquarters in Tampa, Florida, could not answer basic questions Thursday about the information, including whether it counted government-backed Sunni fighters among Iraqi security forces or insurgents among civilians.
The figures were discovered this week during a routine check by the Associated Press for civilian and military casualty numbers that were first requested in 2005.
The figures did not specify whether the civilian deaths were caused by sectarian violence, but appeared to track charts previously released by the Defense Department of Iraqis killed during Operation Iraqi Freedom who died as a result of hostile violence – as opposed to accidents or natural causes.
A tally by the Iraq Body Count, a private, British-based group that has tracked civilian casualties since the war began, estimates that between 98,252 and 107,235 Iraqi civilians were killed between March 2003 and Sept. 19, 2010. The group has used media reports and other sources to reach its tally.
Until last month, the AP compiled its own daily body count of Iraqi civilians killed in sectarian violence, excluding insurgents.