|In Iraq’s bloodbath, death toll is a casualty
As Iraq struggles to stem spiralling violence, authorities are waging a public relations battle over the number of people killed.
The government has downplayed fatalities in official statements, even as violence has reached levels not seen since 2008.
While the UN says that more than 4,000 people have been killed this year, an AFP review of more than 1,700 interior and defense ministry statements and archived on their websites found only a fraction of that figure was publicly acknowledged.
The interior ministry statements contained references to the deaths of about 120 civilians and security forces in attacks, while the defense ministry mentioned about 30 Iraqi security forces and civilians having died.
The Iraqi government is clearly concerned about public perceptions of violence.
The interior ministry issued a statement this month slamming what it termed “fabricated news and untrue statistics'' in reports on attacks.
“The malicious media attacks launched by some media organizations ... are not less dangerous than these attacks themselves,'' the ministry said.
“The language of numbers is important for Al-Qaeda, and the process of some media organizations adopting this'' is “encouraging Al-Qaeda to move forward in targeting the Iraqi citizen,'' interior ministry spokesman Brigadier General Saad Maan said in an interview with AFP.
A senior army officer told AFP that the Iraqi government's concern over death tolls has led it to release incomplete numbers.
“The statistics that are mentioned in defense and interior ministry statements do not include the final numbers of victims of terrorist attacks,'' the officer said on condition of anonymity.
Instead, “there are orders from the senior leadership to highlight the activities of security forces and their killing of terrorists.''
Government spokesman Ali Mussawi denied that allegation, saying that “we never gave any orders to reduce the statistics.''
But the Iraqi government privately compiles much more comprehensive figures than those mentioned in its public statements.
According to those figures, obtained by AFP and other media organizations but not officially released, violence in Iraq has killed 2,472 civilians and security forces members so far this year.
Maan said the interior ministry's online statements were not exhaustive and rather covered major incidents, but they made no mention of some of the worst days of violence of the year.
Not all of the interior ministry's statements give lower death tolls than other sources, and some referred to attacks apparently not mentioned elsewhere. But in other cases, the difference in tolls is stark.
On August 15, for example, the ministry issued a statement saying that bombings in Baghdad killed three people, while sources told AFP that attacks killed 27, among them 24 in the capital.
And on August 11, the ministry said that 21 people were killed in attacks the day before, while sources told AFP that 74 people died that day.
AFP requires that death tolls be confirmed by either one credible named source or by two credible sources who speak on condition of anonymity.
The defense ministry has meanwhile issued multiple statements in August on wide-ranging anti-insurgent operations it said resulted in the arrest of more than 900 people and the killing of over a dozen militants.
None of the August statements reviewed by AFP mentioned Iraqi military casualties, while security and medical sources have reported the deaths of more than 50 soldiers this month.
“Not revealing the figures is an attempt to show the situation is different from what it is,'' said Essam al-Fayli, a professor of political history at Baghdad's Mustansariyah University.
“Announcing the real numbers would weaken their political position,'' Fayli said of Iraq's main political parties.