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 – the darkest chapter of Iraq's sectarian warfare and the U.S. troop surge to quell it.
But the tally falls short of the estimated 85,694 deaths of civilians and security officials between January 2004 to 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.
Officials with the Iraqi Health Ministry, which tracks how Iraqis are killed through death certificates, refused to discuss the U.S. casualty data Thursday.
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 through the Freedom of Information Act.
In all, the U.S. data tallied 76,939 Iraqi security officials and civilians killed and 121,649 wounded between January 2004 and August 2008. The count shows 3,952 American and other U.S.-allied international troops were killed over the same period.
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.
Those charts – which did not provide concrete numbers – were based on data compiled by U.S. and Iraqi government figures.
The U.S. count falls short of casualty figures compiled by Iraq's Human Rights Ministry.
The ministry said in its report released last October that 85,694 people were killed from the beginning of 2004 to Oct. 31, 2008, and that 147,195 were wounded. The figures included Iraqi civilians, military and police, but did not cover U.S. military deaths, insurgents, or foreigners, including contractors. Like the new U.S. figures, the Iraqi report did not include the first months of the war after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
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 to 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. Overall, The AP tallied 49,416 Iraqi security officials and civilians killed since April 28, 2005 until Sept. 30, 2010. That figure underrepresented the true casualty number because many killings went unreported, especially in more remote areas.
The Central Command figures represent the largest release of raw data by the U.S. military to detail deaths during the Iraq war. The military has repeatedly resisted sharing its numbers, which it uses to determine security trends.
A notable exception, however, came this year when U.S. military officials in Baghdad decided to release their July 2010 Iraqi casualty tally to refute the Iraqi government's much higher monthly figures. That decision was made weeks before U.S. forces withdrew all but 50,000 troops from Iraq – as ordered by President Barack Obama in an attempt to wind down the war and tout the nation's improved security.
Even so, counting the number of Iraqis killed has always been difficult, and tallies have widely varied depending on the source.
Associated Press Writers Mazin Yahya and Hamid Ahmed in Baghdad and AP Investigative Researcher Randy Herschaft in New York contributed to this report.