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The Iraqi government should return to past practice and immediately make public official figures on civilian casualties, Human Rights Watch said today.

In the past, the Iraqi government has released official data on civilian injuries and deaths – an important barometer of the war’s human cost. But in an apparent reversal of policy, the government has refused to provide the United Nations with current data, which the UN requested for its new human rights report, released on April 25, 2007.

“Iraqi citizens face extreme violence every day and they deserve a full and accurate picture of what is taking place,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The Iraqi government should make public its figures on civilian deaths even if the picture is bleak. Withholding the facts will not make the situation any safer.”

UN officials said the Iraqi government gave no official reason for withholding the data. But unofficially, the government expressed concern that the numbers would be “used to portray the situation as very grim,” said Ivana Vuco, a UN human rights officer in Iraq. High casualty figures would “further undermine their efforts to establish some kind of security and stability in the country,” she said at a news conference in Baghdad.

A new Baghdad security plan came into effect on February 14, 2007, which increased Iraqi and US troop levels in the capital.

Previous UN human rights reports have included official Iraqi figures on civilian casualties. The last report, issued in January 2007, said that 34,452 civilians were killed and more than 36,000 wounded in 2006.

“Unlike previous reports, the new UNAMI Quarterly Human Rights report does not contain official statistics of violent deaths regularly gathered by the Ministry of Health and the Medico-Legal Institute in Baghdad,” a UN statement said, referring to the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI). “This is because the Iraqi Government decided not to make such data available to UNAMI.”

According to UNAMI spokesman Said Arikat, Iraqi government officials criticized the UN’s January 2007 human rights report, claiming the number of reported civilian casualties was too high.

The UN report released today covers the first three months of 2007. It documents serious human rights abuses by insurgents and various armed groups, including the targeting of civilians, law enforcement personnel, and government officials. The report cites some improvements by the Iraqi government but it criticizes the authorities for the ongoing use of torture and possible collusion between armed militias and Iraqi security forces.

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly condemned torture by Iraqi security forces, documented most comprehensively in a January 2005 report, “The New Iraq? Torture and Ill-treatment of Detainees in Iraqi Custody.

The UN report said civilian casualties between January 1, 2007 and March 31 remained high, especially in and around Baghdad. It attributed the high level of violence to “large scale indiscriminate killings and targeted assassinations perpetrated by insurgency groups, militias and other armed groups.” The violence killed large numbers of civilians, including women and children, in both Shi`a and Sunni neighborhoods, the report said.

Iraqi government officials claimed an initial decrease in killings in the second half of February 2007 after the new Baghdad Security Plan was implemented. But the number of reported casualties rose again in March, the report said.

The Iraqi government called the new UN report “inaccurate” and “unbalanced.” In a statement, it said the report places the credibility of the UN in doubt and “aggravates the humanitarian crisis in Iraq.”

On February 14, 2007, US troops increased their presence in and around Baghdad as part of the new security plan for which the United States has committed an extra 30,000 troops. Iraqi forces have detained more than 3,000 people since the Baghdad security plan came into effect, the report said.

The UN report criticized the Iraqi authorities for failing to guarantee the detainees due process rights. It condemned the use of torture and other inhumane treatment in detention centers under the authority of the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Defense. In total, Iraqi and US security forces are holding roughly 37,000 people, many of whom have not been charged or sent to trial.

“The Iraqi government faces a daunting task to establish law and order,” Whitson said. “But it can’t pretend security is getting better by suppressing its own statistics.”

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