BAGHDAD, Iraq—U.S. officials, seeking a way to measure the results of a program aimed at decreasing violence in Baghdad, aren't counting scores of dead killed in car bombings and mortar attacks as victims of the country's sectarian violence.
In a distinction previously undisclosed, U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Barry Johnson said Friday that the United States is including in its tabulations of sectarian violence only deaths of individuals killed in drive-by shootings or by torture and execution.
That has allowed U.S. officials to boast that the number of deaths from sectarian violence in Baghdad declined by more than 52 percent in August over July.
But it eliminates from tabulation huge numbers of people whose deaths are certainly part of the ongoing conflict between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Not included, for example, are scores of people who died in a highly coordinated bombing that leveled an entire apartment building in eastern Baghdad, a stronghold of rebel Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Johnson declined to provide an actual number for the U.S. tally of August deaths or for July, when the Baghdad city morgue counted a record 1,855 violent deaths.
Violent deaths for August, a morgue official told McClatchy Newspapers on Friday, totaled 1,526, a 17.7 percent decline from July and about the same as died violently in June.
The dispute is an important one. With Baghdad violence reaching record levels in July, U.S. commanders warned that the country was tipping toward civil war. They then ordered 8,000 U.S. troops and 3,000 Iraqis to conduct house-by-house searches of Baghdad's neighborhoods in an effort to root out insurgent gunmen and militia death squads in Operation Together Forward.
The program, which began in earnest Aug. 7, included bringing in thousands of American troops from other parts of Iraq in what was seen by many as a last-ditch effort to head off a civil war that many Iraqis say has already begun.
Within weeks of the kickoff of the Baghdad security plan, the U.S. military's top spokesman, Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell, boasted that the murder rate in Baghdad had fallen by 46 percent and attributed most of the fall to the new security sweeps.
On Thursday, Caldwell revised the figures, posting a statement on the website of the Multi-National Force-Iraq that the murder rate had dropped even more—by 52 percent from July.
That claim was immediately contradicted by the morgue figures, which trickled out in accounts by various news organizations citing unnamed officials.
Johnson said he couldn't comment on morgue figures and declined to release the raw numbers on which Caldwell's claim was based. He said the numbers were classified and that releasing them might help "our enemy" adjust their tactics.
"We attempt to strike the right balance, being as open and transparent as possible without providing information that places our troops or Iraqi civilians at undo risk by the enemy adjusting their tactics for greater impact," he said, in explaining the decision not to release the figures.
Johnson said the numbers more accurately reflect the impact of Operation Together Forward's mission: targeting operations of shadowy sectarian death squads, who often use drive-by shootings, torture and executions as tactics for terror, rather than suicide bombings or rocket or mortar attacks.
He said the figures quoted by Caldwell reflect a "cautious optimism" that the situation is improving in Iraq.
But whether the violence is truly improving is far from clear. The morgue numbers made public this week reflect only deaths in Baghdad and figures compiled by the Ministry of Health for August violent deaths throughout Iraq won't be released until later this month.
Car bombs daily claim tens of victims, and tit-for-tat exchanges of mortar fire are nightly occurrences. Every morning bodies are discovered, many with their hands and feet bound.
The distinction in the way those people die is lost on victims' relatives, some of whom suggest the true numbers are higher.
"If you want the truth, even when we hear or see the scenes of explosions, assassinations, or number of dead on TV, we don't really care anymore, our feelings are dead," said Dhiya Ahmed, whose 17-year-old nephew was killed on Aug. 11. The young man was walking with a friend near his house when gunmen approached and shot them both dead.
"The numbers are not quite true," said Ahmed. "I bet the actual number is much more."
The family's tragedy has been intense. Last year the victim's father was killed in a similar fashion.
Even while touting the successes, Caldwell on Thursday warned on the coalition Web site about possible increases in violence from insurgent and terrorist attacks that he said would be used to divert attention from the Baghdad security initiative.
"It should not be a surprise if we witness brief up ticks in violence in the near future," he wrote.
Government leaders seem to be bracing for more bodies. A meeting was held recently between officials in the Health Ministry to talk about importing refrigerators for the morgue. The idea was to set them up in an empty building nearby.
But the discussion quickly broke down over what kind of freezers they would use: ones with sliding doors or a single large freezing room. More talks are scheduled.
In Baghdad on Friday, three civilians were killed and three others wounded when a bomb targeting the convoy of the Karrada neighborhood police commander exploded. Three police officers also were wounded.
Police also discovered 14 bodies in a western portion of the city.
(Drew Brown in Washington contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.