Disparate Death Toll Sparks Sunni Outcry

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The past six days of violence that have convulsed Iraq since the bombing of the al-Askariya shrine last week could be much worse than Iraqi and Coalition officials have admitted. The Washington Post reported Tuesday that more than 1,300 bodies had been delivered to the Baghdad morgue, directly challenging the Iraqi government’s assertion that about 380 people had been killed around the country since the Wednesday bombing of the al-Askariya shrine in Samarra.

Hundreds of bodies were packed into the morgue, the paper reported, and wailing relatives clustered around the doorway hoping to claim the body of a loved one. Meanwhile, Sunni leaders seethed at the assault on their community, and said they weren’t surprised that the number of people reportedly killed was much higher than official figures: “They never give the right number,” said Saleh Mutlak, a leading Sunni politician. “Because they are the killers. Their militias are the killers.”

Sunnis overwhelmingly view the Shi’ite-dominated security forces—especially the Ministry of Interior’s special police commandos—as militias in government clothing, and accuse units such as the infamous “Wolf Brigade” of conducting a planned campaign of terror, intimidation and assassination against the Sunnis. They are taking their revenge for the terror of Saddam, they say.

Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a spokesman for the U.S. military in Baghdad, said U.S. and Iraqi authorities had confirmation on only about 365 deaths, but did not deny that more deaths were possible because of the narrow requirements the U.S. and Iraqi government have for reporting them. “They have additional reports that have insufficient details to properly substantiate.”

The ambiguity surrounding the death toll continues to feed into the paranoid nature of Iraqi politics. The most ghastly rumors are routinely believed to be true because so many Sunnis are ready to believe the worst about the Iraqi government and its American backers. Not even government employees are immune to skepticism. “What 1,300?” said an official in the office of a senior Iraq government minister. “Yesterday’s (Monday’s) death toll alone was 230.” He elaborated that 230 people—mostly Sunni—were killed Monday in a single Baghdad neighborhood. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.