Sabrina Tavernise / The New York Times – 2006-11-22 23:39:40
More Iraqi civilians were killed in October than in any month since the American invasion in 2003, a report released by the United Nations on Wednesday said, a rise that underscored the growing cost of Iraq’s deepening sectarian war.
According to the report, 3,709 Iraqis were killed in October, up slightly from the previous all-time high in July, and an increase of about 11 percent from the number in September.
The figures, which include totals from the Baghdad morgue and hospitals and morgues across the country, have become a central barometer of the war here and a gauge of the progress of the American military as it tries to bring stability to this exhausted country.
A dangerous trend surfaced: 65 percent of all killings in Baghdad were executions, the signature technique of militias that kidnap, kill and throw away corpses at a rate that now outstrips the slaughter inflicted by suicide bombers.
The report did not offer a breakdown by sect, and it is impossible to tell who is dying in greater numbers.
“We have a situation in which impunity prevails,” said Gianni Magazzeni, head of the UN Human Rights Office in Baghdad, which compiled the report. “It’s critically important for the government to ensure that justice is done.”
Even life spoke of war and a society in collapse. The report painted a portrait of social calamity that included 100,000 Iraqis a month fleeing to Syria and Jordan, and schools in some of the most violent areas of the country having all but shut down.
Deaths declined slightly in the capital, down by 2 percent in September and October from the total for July and August. The killing picked up in other places like Diyalo, a mixed province north of Baghdad, and Balad, a town where sectarian killing exploded briefly in October.
After Baghdad, the highest death tolls were registered in the provinces of Salahuddin and Diyalo, the city of Mosul, and in a very distant fifth place, the city of Kirkuk.
The figures illustrate just how deeply the killing has become embedded in Iraqi society. They had been a point of contention for the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, which suppressed them in September after criticizing them as inflated.
But the United Nations stands by the count, which tallies unclaimed bodies from Iraq’s six morgues and death certificates, which are required for burial and for inheritance procedures. If anything, the numbers are low. Figures from hospitals come from the Health Ministry, which counts deaths only on the day of the attack. Victims who die later are not counted.
The cycle of violence here is one that American military commanders have made substantial efforts to try to stop. Most recently, they conducted a broad series of sweeps in the capital this summer.
But their task has become far more complicated since February, when Shiites began to fight back against attacks by Sunni militants. Now the monthly totals of the dead in Baghdad are running about double what they were in 2005.
Nearly three-quarters of all the killings in October occurred in the capital, home to a quarter of the country’s population and its economic as well as political center.
Sabah, a 41-year-old Shiite, was returning from lunch with her husband, a Sunni, in northeastern Baghdad in late August, when men in plain clothes standing near a police car approached them at a traffic light. They asked to look at the couple’s national identification cards. Sabah’s husband has a last name that is obviously Sunni, and the men grabbed them both in front of a crowd.
“They put me in the trunk, in front of all the people,” said Sabah, looking intense yet distant as she experienced the pain of the memory. “That scene, I cannot forget it.”
Last year, the majority of deaths were of Shiites in bombings. Now the dying has shifted, and Sabah’s story follows the grim pattern that is typical of most killings these days.
In the darkness of the trunk, she listened to the sounds outside. The car stopped. She heard joyful shouts from what sounded like a wedding party. It stopped again and hands lifted her out. She was blindfolded, but sensed they had left the city. The air smelled fresh.
In all she was moved six or seven times, sometimes in the trunk, sometimes on the floor of the back seat of a car, blankets and the feet of gunmen on top of her.
For eight days, she and her husband were held in various places in Sadr City, the vast area in northeastern Baghdad that is the national center of the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia. Most of those days they spent in an empty high school, with desks in classrooms and lessons still written on chalkboards. It was summertime and there were no students.
The men never stated their motive, though Sabah believed that it was because her husband was a Sunni. His last name, al-Shekhli, is most common in Adhamiya, the Sunni heart of Baghdad. They berated Sabah for marrying a Sunni. They never asked for money.
“They hate Sunnis to the core,” she said.
Typical of today’s Iraq, militias mingled so closely with the police during Sabah’s captivity that by the end, she could no longer distinguish between the two. A police car was parked at one site and her captor bragged that it belonged to him. Before her release, she was transferred to a family whose son worked as a police officer during the day.
The school that was her prison was largely empty in the mornings, but by late afternoon, “a party happened,” she said. “Policeman during the day, Mahdi Army at night.”
Then on Sept. 3, after days of beatings of her husband and many promises of release, their captors relented. They gave them baths and fresh clothes. They reunited them, but in the moments before their release, they were separated. The men insisted on giving back their car. Sabah’s husband walked off with them to get it. She never saw him again.
She was driven home. He was shot. His death certificate says there were three bullets: one in the back, one in the back of the neck and one in the back of the head. His body was found in a car parking area near Sadr City.
The reason was his last name, Sabah said.
“I am so sad they were Iraqis who killed him,” she said. “Not foreigners. Not Americans. Iraqis.”
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