U.N. says Iraqi deaths hit new high, many flee
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi deaths hit a new high in October and 100,000 people are fleeing abroad every month to escape worsening violence that is segregating the country on sectarian lines, a U.N. report said on Wednesday.
Painting a grim picture of a population caught in the cross-fire between insurgents, militias, criminal gangs and security forces, the bimonthly report put civilian deaths in October at 3,709 -- 120 a day and up from 3,345 in September.
Under growing pressure from an impatient Bush administration to do more to curb the violence, the Iraqi government accused the United Nations of exaggerating the death toll to "mislead the world". U.N. officials said they stood by their figures.
"The real figure is a quarter of that," Health Minister Ali al-Shimeri said on state television on Wednesday night. But police said they found 59 bodies in Baghdad alone on Wednesday, the apparent victims of death squads.
The White House announced that U.S. President George W. Bush would meet Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Jordan next week to discuss transferring greater security responsibility to U.S.-trained Iraqi forces, a key demand of the Iraqi government.
British forces could hand over the key southern oil city of Basra, which generates almost all of Iraq's revenues, and the rest of the province to Iraqi forces by next spring, British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said in London.
Though plagued by factional fighting, mainly Shi'ite Basra has largely escaped the sectarian violence ravaging much of Iraq. The U.N. report said nearly 420,000 Iraqis had fled their homes since the February bombing of a Shi'ite shrine triggered a surge in tit-for-tat attacks.
As well as those displaced internally, nearly 100,000 people were fleeing to Syria and Jordan each month -- proportionally equivalent to 1 million Americans emigrating each month.
POLICE LOYALTY QUESTIONED
The meeting between Bush and Maliki in the Jordanian capital Amman will be the first lengthy talks between Bush and Maliki since Bush pledged a new approach on Iraq after his Democratic opponents took control of Congress.
They have already agreed to draw up plans to speed up the training of Iraqi forces and transfer of responsibility. Maliki says Iraqis could take charge in six months, half the U.S. estimate.
But the U.N. report raised questions about the sectarian loyalties and effectiveness of Iraq's police force and army.
"There are increasing reports of militias and death squads operating from within the police ranks or in collusion with them," it said. "Its forces are increasingly accused of ... kidnapping, torture, murder, bribery ... extortion and theft."
It said sectarian attacks were the main source of violence, fuelled by insurgents and militias as well as criminal groups.
Baghdad was worst hit, accounting for nearly 5,000 of the 7,054 deaths in September and October, with most bodies bearing signs of torture and gunshot wounds.
The death toll figures, which U.N. officials said were based on data from the Health Ministry and central morgue, are politically sensitive in Iraq, where U.S. and Iraqi officials are anxious to show progress in reducing violence levels.
Health Minister Shimeri is a member of Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's political movement. Sadr's Mehdi Army militia has been blamed by Sunni leaders for some of the worst violence.
Shimeri denied his ministry had given any data to the United Nations office and said they had obtained it by "illegal and indirect" means, such as through a doctor or a nurse.
The chief of the U.N.'s human rights office in Baghdad, Gianni Magazzeni, said Shimeri himself had spoken of up to 150,000 people being killed in Iraq since the war, a rate that would equal more than 3,000 a month.
The U.N. figures are consistent with those given to Reuters by sources at the Baghdad morgue.
Reuters counted 1,178 violent civilian deaths reported by Iraqi officials in October, an average of 38 a day. Chaotic conditions mean many deaths certainly go unreported.
(Additional reporting by Aseel Kami, Mussab Al-Khairalla, Ross Colvin and Alastair Macdonald in Baghdad, Matt Spetalnick on Air Force One and Edmund Blair in Tehran)
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