BAGHDAD // From the start, the numbers looked suspect. Iraqi authorities said last weekend 535 people were killed in acts of insurgent-related violence last month, which would make it the country's bloodiest month in more than two years. Another 1,043 people were wounded, said the authorities.
But the US military said on Sunday only 222 Iraqis were killed in July and 782 wounded. US officials then went further, flatly calling the Iraq figures "incorrect." In this discrepancy, Iraqis not surprisingly see politics at work. They believe US officials want to downplay the death toll in order to smooth the withdrawal of all American combat forces by the end of this month. "The Americans are trying to undersell the real level of violence in Iraq and their numbers do not reflect the reality on the ground, a reality in which security has recently been getting worse," said Amar Majid, an independent political analyst from Baghdad.
"We know the Americans are pulling their soldiers out and they want to leave with their heads held high, saying that they have brought us democracy and left us peace and stability. If they admit that 500 people are being killed in a month that doesn't look like success." The Iraqi authorities were surprised by the US rebuke and say they compiled July's casualty figures in the usual way, collecting data from the ministries of health, defence and interior. Their figures and methodologies have never been publicly disputed by the US military in the past.
"It is clearly wrong to say that only 200 or so people died last month here," Mohammed al Obaedi, the Iraqi MP of the Iraqi Accord Front, said in Baghdad. "The Iraqi figures are as accurate as we are able to collect and they show that the security is getting worse," said Mr Obaedi. "The argument between Baghdad and Washington over these numbers shows the extent of the problems we are facing and indicate that things are not improving here."
That message is one that Iraqi politicians and analysts believe is not popular in the White House, with the US administration desperate to sell the Iraq war as a success and to move their focus onto Afghanistan. Such a shift would be made harder, they say, if the US public were to realise that almost twice as many people were killed during July in Iraq as in Afghanistan, where some 270 civilians were reported to have lost their lives.
President Barack Obama has set a withdrawal timetable that will see both US combat troop strength cut to 50,000 by the end of the month and the end to the US military's combat role here. This schedule was originally put forth in the belief that a new government would by now have taken office in Baghdad. But a delayed and bitterly disputed election, followed by extended political paralysis make it highly unlikely a new administration will be in place by the time US troop strength is cut.
Statistics on Iraqi dead have long been a controversial subject. In the aftermath of the US-led invasion of 2003, the US military and occupation authorities said they had not kept track of Iraqi casualties, only counting the dead and injured among their own soldiers. The actual number of Iraqi dead therefore remains unknown and estimates vary wildly. A commonly quoted number of about 100,000 has been compiled by the Iraq Body Count organisation, which monitors press reports. Many killings in Iraq do go unreported by the media.
The Associated Press, which also keeps track of casualties, recorded a higher number for last month than the US military. It said it counted 350 Iraqis killed that month, a figure it indicated was likely to be a conservative estimate. While the numbers are disputed, what is clear is a creeping erosion of confidence among many Iraqis, who sense in their everyday lives that security is getting worse. The situation may not be as bad as it was in 2006, when thousands were being killed each month, but many ordinary Iraqis feel more vulnerable now than they have done in years.
"It used to be pretty safe here but it isn't any more," said Hussein Kazim Ali, a shop owner in the Karrada neighbourhood in the capital. As conditions worsened in Iraq after 2004, he sent his family to live in the safety of the UAE for four years, bringing them back only when the situation appeared to stabilise. "There are more assassinations, there are kidnappings again, I'm afraid again," he said. "I'm thinking of sending my wife and children outside of the country again and if things continue like this, I'll have no choice but to do it."