BAGHDAD — A stunning new death count emerged Thursday, as Iraq’s health minister estimated 150,000 civilians have been killed in the war — about three times previously accepted estimates.
Moderate Sunni Muslims, meanwhile, threatened to walk away from politics and pick up guns, while the Shiite-dominated government renewed pressure on the United States to unleash the Iraqi Army and claimed it could crush violence in six months.
After Democrats swept to majorities in both houses of the U.S. Congress and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld resigned, Iraqis appeared unsettled and seemed to sense the potential for an even bloodier conflict because future American policy is uncertain. As a result, positions hardened on both sides of the country’s deepening sectarian divide.
Previous estimates of Iraq deaths held that 45,000-50,000 have been killed in the nearly 44-month-old conflict, according to partial figures from Iraqi institutions and media reports. No official count has ever been available.
Health Minister Ali al-Shemari gave his new estimate of 150,000 to reporters during a visit to Vienna, Austria. He later told The Associated Press that he based the figure on an estimate of 100 bodies per day brought to morgues and hospitals — though such a calculation would come out closer to 130,000 in total.
“It is an estimate,” al-Shemari said. He blamed Sunni insurgents, Wahhabis — Sunni religious extremists — and criminal gangs for the deaths.
Hassan Salem, of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI, said the 150,000 figure included civilians, police and the bodies of people who were abducted, later found dead and collected at morgues run by the Health Ministry. SCIRI is Iraq’s largest Shiite political organization and holds the largest number of seats in parliament.
In October, the British medical journal The Lancet published a controversial study contending nearly 655,000 Iraqis have died because of the war — a far higher death toll than other estimates. The study, which was dismissed by President Bush and other U.S. officials as not credible, was based on interviews of households and not a body count.
Al-Shemari disputed that figure Thursday.
“Since three and a half years, since the change of the Saddam regime, some people say we have 600,000 are killed. This is an exaggerated number. I think 150 is OK,” he said.
Accurate figures on the number of people who have died in the Iraq conflict have long been the subject of debate. Police and hospitals often give widely conflicting figures of those killed in major bombings. In addition, death figures are reported through multiple channels by government agencies that function with varying efficiency.
As al-Shemari issued the startling new estimate, the head of the Baghdad central morgue said Thursday he was receiving as many as 60 violent death victims each day at his facility alone. Dr. Abdul-Razzaq al-Obaidi said those deaths did not include victims of violence whose bodies were taken to the city’s many hospital morgues or those who were removed from attack scenes by relatives and quickly buried according to Muslim custom.
Al-Obaidi said the morgue had received 1,600 violent death victims in October, one of the bloodiest months of the conflict. U.S. forces suffered 105 deaths last month, the fourth highest monthly toll.
At least 45 Iraqis were killed or found dead in continuing sectarian violence Thursday, with 16 of the victims killed in bombings at Baghdad markets. For the fifth straight day, insurgent and militia mortar teams traded fire in the capital’s northern neighborhoods.
Al-Shemari, while not explaining the death toll estimate, was more precise about the government’s increasingly public and insistent demands for a speedier U.S. transfer of authority to Iraqi forces and the withdrawal of American troops to their bases and from Iraq’s cities and towns.
“The army of America didn’t do its job. ... They tie the hands of my government,” said al-Shemari, a Shiite.
“They should hand us the power. We are a sovereign country,” he said, adding that the first step would be for American forces to leave population centers.
Al-Shemari is a controversial figure and a member of the movement of radical anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Some U.S. officials have complained that the ministry has diverted supplies to al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia.
In August, U.S. troops arrested seven of al-Shemari’s personal guards in a raid on his office. The U.S. never explained the raid, but Iraqi officials said Americans suspected the guards were part of a militia.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who also has close ties to al-Sadr, told Bush in a video conference last month that he would make renewal of the U.N. mandate under which the U.S. keeps forces in Iraq conditional on a rapid handover of power.
Al-Maliki also said at the time that U.S. forces should clear out of Iraq’s cities, according to top aide Hassan al-Suneid. He said the White House agreed, although that was never confirmed in Washington.
Last week, al-Maliki rejected a demand by a visiting top administration official that he move to disband Shiite militias by year’s end. A senior al-Maliki adviser, who refused to be identified by name because of the sensitive nature of the talks, said the prime minister told U.S. National Intelligence Director John Negroponte it would be suicidal for the Iraqi leader to move against the heavily armed militias.
The militias are a key player in the sectarian conflict in Iraq, having taken to the streets with extreme vengeance against Sunni insurgents and civilians after the February bombing of a Shiite shrine north of Baghdad.
The militias and their death squads are the armed wings of rival Shiite political parties. One of the militias, known as the Mahdi Army, is loyal to al-Sadr; the second, larger group is known as the Badr Brigade and answers to the SCIRI.
Al-Maliki’s hold on power depends on the support of both political organizations and their fighters, hence his reluctance to move against the armed groups.
He also has balked at U.S. demands for passage of a series of laws that would favor minority Sunnis, a group that makes up the bulk of the insurgency that has been fighting U.S. forces and has killed tens of thousands of Shiites.
Sunni members of parliament over the past two days have threatened to walk out of the legislature and take up arms. They charge the Shiite-dominated government with refusing to meet their demands for a fair division of power and natural resources.
The dean of the Sunni politicians in parliament said Thursday there were attempts by Iran to run Sunnis out of the country. Adnan al-Dulaimi then called Arab countries to support Iraq’s Sunni minority.
“There is a Safawi (Iranian) plan to root the Sunnis out of this country, and we are confronting it,” al-Dulaimi said. “We call on our Arab brethren to support us and confront this Safawi plan.”
His political group has five ministers in al-Maliki’s Cabinet and al-Dulaimi again threatened to pull them out of the government.
AP writer Veronika Oleksyn in Vienna contributed to this report.