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By NICK WADHAMS
The number of Iraqi civilians killed in July and August hit 6,599, a record-high number that is far greater than initial estimates suggested, the United Nations said Wednesday.
The report from the U.N. Assistance Mission in Iraq’s Human Rights office highlighted the sectarian crisis gripping the country, offering a grim assessment across a range of indicators – worrying evidence of torture, unlawful detentions, growth of sectarian militias and death squads, and a rise in "honor killings" of women.
That raises new questions about U.S. and Iraqi forces’ ability to bring peace to Baghdad, where the bulk of the violent deaths occurred. Iraq’s government, set up in 2006, is "currently facing a generalized breakdown of law and order which presents a serious challenge to the institutions of Iraq," it said.
According to the U.N., which releases the figures every two months, violent civilian deaths in July reached an unprecedented high of 3,590, an average of more than 100 a day. The August toll was 3,009, the report said.
The lower August number may have been the result of a security crackdown in Baghdad, though it was partly offset by a rise in attacks elsewhere, including in the northern city of Mosul.
For the previous period, the U.N. had reported just under 6,000 deaths – 2,669 in May and 3,149 in June. That was up from 1,129 in April, and 710 in January.
Of the total for July and August, the report said 5,106 of the dead were from Baghdad.
The report attributed many of the deaths to the rising sectarian tensions that have pushed Iraq toward the verge of civil war.
"These figures reflect the fact that indiscriminate killings of civilians have continued throughout the country while hundreds of bodies appear bearing signs of severe torture and execution style killing," the report said. "Such murders are carried out by death squads or by armed groups, with sectarian or revenge connotations."
At the heart of the U.N. findings are casualty figures that combine two counts: from the Ministry of Health, which records deaths reported by hospitals; and the Medico-Legal Institute in Baghdad, which tallies the unidentified bodies it receives.
The U.N. investigators who compiled the report said it was likely that even those numbers were low. In July, for example, the Health Ministry reported no people killed in Anbar, the chaotic province that includes the extremely violent cities of Ramadi and Fallujah.
Also, the Medico-Legal Institute’s number of 1,536 was the same as the number of violent deaths in Baghdad reported by the Iraqi Health Ministry earlier this month.
The U.S. military had initially claimed a drastic drop in the death toll for August, but the estimate was revised upward after the United States revealed it had not counted people killed by bombs, mortars, rockets or other mass attacks.
The report said torture was a major concern in Iraq and the bodies showed significant evidence of it.
"Bodies found at the Medico-legal Institute often bear signs of severe torture including acid-induced injuries and burns caused by chemical substances, missing skin, broken bones (back, hands and legs), missing eyes, missing teeth and wounds caused by power drills or nails," the report said.
On other issues, the report painted a similarly grim picture. It said about 300,000 people had been displaced in Iraq since the bombing of a shrine in Samarra in February, and reported a rise in honor killings against women.
The U.N. has also received several reports of Iraqi journalists facing prosecution for their reporting. In one case, for example, three reporters working for a newspaper faced trial for articles criticizing a regional government and accusing police and the judicial system there of violating basic human rights.
The report said more than 35,000 Iraqis were under detention, including 13,571 by multinational forces. That represents a 28 percent increase over the number at the end of June, it said.
The U.N. special rapporteur has received allegations of torture in prisons run by Iraq’s interior and defense ministries, as well as ones under multinational control.
Iraqi non-governmental organizations "expressed their frustration at the current situation and stressed the urgent need for the U.N. and other international entities to intervene in order to prevent further human rights violations," the report said.
However, the U.N. special rapporteur for torture, Manfred Nowak, has so far been unable to go to Iraq because the government has not provided him the necessary invitation, it said.