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UN raps Iraq for withholding 'grim' civilian toll

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The United Nations accused Iraq on Wednesday of withholding sensitive civilian casualty figures because the government fears the data would be used to paint a “very grim” picture of a worsening humanitarian crisis.

A woman grieves as she waits to claim the body of her son, killed by gunmen, outside a hospital morgue in Baquba April 25, 2007. REUTERS/Helmiy al-Azawi

The criticism was contained in a new U.N. human rights report on Iraq which drew fire from U.S. officials in Baghdad and the Iraqi government. They said it was flawed and contained numerous inaccuracies.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) said Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government would not release data on civilian deaths amid spiraling sectarian violence between majority Shi’ites and once dominant Sunni Arabs.

“UNAMI emphasizes again the utmost need for the Iraqi government to operate in a transparent manner,” the mission said in its latest report on human rights in Iraq.

U.N. officials said they were given no official reason why their requests for specific official data had been turned down. U.S. military commanders now give percentages to express broad increases or decreases for civilian deaths.

“We were told that the government was becoming increasingly concerned about the figures being used to portray the situation as very grim,” UNAMI human rights officer Ivana Vuco told a news conference.

Maliki, whose administration has previously accused UNAMI of exaggerating civilian deaths, rejected the report.

“The Iraqi government announces its deep reservation on the report, which lacks accuracy in the information presented, lacks credibility in many of its points and lacks balance in its presentation of the human rights situation in Iraq,” said a statement from his office.

U.S. officials in Baghdad said the report was flawed, particularly on the issue of Iraqi detentions and in the interpretation of casualty figures.

“There are numerous factual inaccuracies contained in the UNAMI document ... that undermine its overall credibility,” a U.S. embassy official in Baghdad said.

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In January, UNAMI said 34,452 Iraqi civilians were killed and more than 36,000 wounded in 2006, figures that were much higher than any statistics issued by the government.

On Wednesday it said Iraq faced “immense security challenges” and a “rapidly worsening humanitarian crisis.”

The U.N. report expressed concern at the treatment of thousands of suspects detained under a major security crackdown in Baghdad, and about reports of collusion between Iraqi forces and some militias.

It also said academics, journalists, doctors and members of religious and ethnic minorities were increasingly being killed, intimidated or kidnapped by armed groups.

Iraqi officials say the civilian casualty toll has declined in the capital since the launch of the Baghdad security plan nine weeks ago. U.S. military commanders say a surge in car bombings, however, has pushed up the overall toll countrywide.

Under the crackdown, U.S. and Iraqi troops are sweeping through Baghdad neighborhoods, setting up checkpoints and combat outposts and walling off some flashpoint areas.

But Iraq’s military said it was altering a U.S. plan to enclose the Sunni enclave of Adhimiya in Baghdad with high concrete walls, after criticism it would fan sectarian tension. Some residents had likened it to Israel’s West Bank barrier.

Violence continued as a suicide attacker walked into a police station in volatile Diyala province and detonated a bomb, killing nine and wounding 16, police said.

The conflict in Iraq will be discussed at an international meeting next week in Egypt of Iraq’s neighbors as well as officials from the United States and other countries.

Iran, which attended a similar meeting in Baghdad last month, will decide soon whether to attend, Iran’s Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said.

Maliki said during a visit to Kuwait that he hoped Iran would attend. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who will be at the meeting, said this week it would be a “missed opportunity” if Iran, which Washington accuses of fomenting violence in Iraq, stayed away.

Rice has said she would be prepared to speak to the Iranians on the sidelines of the conference but has made clear discussions would be limited to Iraq and would not touch on Iran’s sensitive nuclear program.

“We will see what opportunities present themselves and I am sure the secretary will move appropriately on any of them,” said State Department spokesman Tom Casey when asked if Rice planned to meet the Iranians if they attended the meeting.

Additional reporting by Ross Colvin in Baghdad, Sue Pleming in Washington and Inal Ersan in Tehran