The number of civilians killed or wounded since the war ended in northern Iraq is higher than it was during the conflict, Human Rights Watch said today.

Extensive research at five hospitals and morgues in Kirkuk and Mosul suggests that the high civilian tolls can be attributed to general lawlessness after the collapse of local authorities; the ready availability of weapons and ammunition; and the vast stores of ammunition and ammunition components left behind by the Iraqi military, including landmines, rocket-propelled grenades, and other explosives.

Many of the victims have been children who play with explosives or pick up unexploded ordnance (UXO) as toys and sustain serious injuries as a result.

“In some ways, the peace has proved more lethal than the war,” said Hania Mufti, London Director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch.

At the al-Zahrawri Hospital (formerly al-Jumhuri Hospital) in Mosul, for example, emergency room records show that three civilians were treated on April 22 after an unidentified person riding a motorbike tossed a grenade in their direction. Another ten patients were brought in that day after a looting incident in the Hawi al-Kanisa area of the city. Three of them later died of their gunshot wounds.

The Iraqi authorities stored up huge amounts of ammunition and small arms in homes, schools, and other sites in residential areas in the run-up to the war. At the al-Bayda’ Secondary School for Girls in Kirkuk, Human Rights Watch researchers on April 13 found one classroom still stacked with dozens of boxes of ammunition, including rocket-propelled grenades, 82mm and 100mm mortar shells, and 12.7mm machine gun bullets. The guard at the school told Human Rights Watch that the Iraqi military had brought the ammunition to the school about five or six days before the start of the war, leaving one sentry in the classroom, and that students had been obliged to attend their classes in these conditions.

Storing ammunition in a functioning school is a violation of international humanitarian law.

At the al-Razi Hospital (formerly Saddam Hospital) in Mosul, one doctor in the emergency ward told Human Rights Watch that during the coalition bombing raids, most civilian casualties were the result of ammunition left behind by the Iraqi army in and around the city.

“The [Iraqi] army placed ammunition and weapons in between houses and among civilians in preparation for the war,” the doctor said. “But the Americans did not attack these civilian areas. When the army withdrew, they left behind bombs, bullets, and machine guns. People, mostly children, picked these up and they exploded.”

The doctor said that he treated about fifteen burn cases every day in the course of an eight-hour shift, often children who were trying to light loose gunpowder.

Another doctor at al-Razi Hospital in Mosul said on April 21 that he was often treating “tens of cases daily,” mostly wounds sustained from landmines, exploding ammunition or bullets. He also said that Ba’ath Party loyalists were still present in the hospital and he could not speak freely, out of fear of reprisal attacks. “They are everywhere and they spy on us even now,” he said, “so you can imagine what it was like before.”

Injuries from sniper fire and hand grenades are still a major problem in Mosul, where the situation remains more volatile than in Kirkuk.

Doctors at the Azadi Hospital (formerly Saddam Hospital) in Kirkuk said that in the first three days after the city fell, they were treating around 70 patients every day, most of them civilians who had sustained bullet wounds, shrapnel wounds, and injuries caused by landmines and other explosives. Now, however, the numbers were falling to one or two a day, mostly children with burns on their faces and hands.

Anti-personnel landmines and ammunition are being found in holes dug in the ground in residential areas, while similar explosive materials were left strewn around the grounds of military bases on the perimeters of both Mosul and Kirkuk. The bases include the al-Khalid Garrison south of Kirkuk, a Republican Guard facility; and al-Ghazlani Garrison in Mosul.