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Nearly 2,000 civilians slain in Iraq in December

Times Staff Writer

December was the deadliest month for Iraqi civilians in 2006, according to a combination of statistics released by staff at the Iraqi Health, Interior and Defense ministries. The death toll was 1,927, compared with 1,846 in November and 1,315 in October.

The surge in civilian fatalities has been attributed largely to the rising tide of sectarian violence in Baghdad and beyond.

Of 12,320 civilians killed during 2006, half died during the last four months, Health Ministry staff said Tuesday. A Times analysis in June found at least 50,000 Iraqis had died violently since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

A typical case is that of Baghdad bus driver Taha Hassan, 41.

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His cousin Raad Yassin still recalls the day in early December when Hassan, a father of three, failed to return home as usual by 3 p.m. Three hours later, kidnappers called, asking whether Hassan was a Sunni Arab or Shiite.

Yassin’s wife answered the phone. Hassan was Shiite, but she was unsure what the kidnappers wanted to hear and simply told them he was Muslim. The kidnappers demanded $15,000 ransom, and the family paid. After four days of waiting for Hassan to come home, relatives began searching local hospitals.

They found his body in a Baghdad morgue, shot several times, his right eye gouged.

“The reason behind this was sectarian,” Yassin, 35, a Shiite nurse in the capital, said of his cousin’s murder.

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The last time Aysha Jabbawi, 67, saw her son Alaa Ahmed was Dec. 2. Ahmed, 32, a Shiite, was a truck driver who carted lumber from Baghdad to Hillah, their hometown to the south.

The day he died, a group of gunmen stopped him and a friend, Mohammed Jabr, 32. Ahmed offered them his truck and all the money he had, she said, about $3,850. They refused. He struggled with them and they shot him twice, Jabbawi said, then drove off with Jabr. Strangers found Ahmed and took him to a nearby hospital, where he gave a statement to police before he died. Jabr is still missing.

Four days ago, a group of men came to Jabbawi’s door with $3,500 in a plastic bag and the key to her son’s truck.

“They told me, ‘Sorry, Aunty,’ ” she said. “I didn’t say to them a single word.”

Ridha Jawad Taqi, a member of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s parliamentary bloc, called the December death toll “a terrifying and horrifying number.” He said militias were responsible.

The Iraqi government defines civilian casualties as victims of violence -- explosions, shootings and bombings, said a Health Ministry employee who asked not to be named. In addition to the civilian deaths, 24 Iraqi soldiers and 124 policemen died in December’s violence, said an Interior Ministry employee who also requested anonymity.

At least 5,900 Iraqi police officers and soldiers have died since the 2003 invasion, according to the Iraq Index, a tally kept by the Washington-based Brookings Institution. Civilian death toll estimates range from tens of thousands to more than half a million.

Many believe the Iraqi government underestimates civilian casualties. The United Nations, for example, estimates that 100 Iraqis die in violence daily.

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On the other hand, an Interior Ministry spokesman said Tuesday that the latest figures were too high. Brig. Gen. Abdul Kareem Khalaf said the civilian toll in December was about half what was being reported and one of the lowest monthly totals of the year. Khalaf did not release alternative figures. The U.S. military does not release Iraqi civilian casualty figures.

The death toll for U.S. forces in Iraq reached 3,000 on Dec. 31, including 113 in December, the highest monthly death toll since the battle for Fallouja in November 2004, according to icasualties.org.

In a 24-hour period ending Tuesday, 45 unidentified bodies were found in Baghdad, Interior Ministry staff said.

U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service agents are looking into an incident at the Fallouja government building in which a Marine fatally wounded an Iraqi soldier, the Marine Corps said.

The Marine, from the 1st Battalion, 24th Marine Regiment, has been assigned to administrative duties during the investigation. Officials declined to reveal what led to the shooting Saturday.

Marines from the 1st Battalion, 24th Regiment, along with Iraqi forces, are assigned to guard several checkpoints on the outskirts of the city as well as the government building. Three Marines were killed in a sniper attack last week.

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

Times staff writers Tony Perry and Saif Hameed and correspondents in Baghdad and Hillah contributed to this report.

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