Iraq admits 23,000 civilians died in 2006

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The Independent Online

As President Bush finalised plans to send thousands more US troops to Iraq, grim new figures emerged showing that almost 23,000 Iraqi civilians died last year as the sectarian violence ravaging the country reached new heights, above all in Baghdad.

According to the latest death count, published by the Iraqi Health Ministry, the slaughter more than tripled between the first and second halves of 2006, from 5,640 to 17,310. In all, the ministry said, 22,950 people died in 2006.

But even that figure is smaller than data compiled by the United Nations, claiming that some 28,000 civilians were killed in the first 10 months alone of 2006. Both estimates pale beside the one in The Lancet medical journal in October 2006, that some 600,000 people had died violently since the US-led invasion of March 2003. Stopping the killing, and restoring security to the capital are vital goals of Mr Bush's expected announcement tomorrow of a phased increase in US troop strength in Iraq of up to 20,000 men - at least five combat brigades - from the current level of 145,000, as well as an extra $1bn in economic aid.

The White House has asked the major television networks for 25 minutes of prime time for the speech, arguably the most important - and certainly the most difficult - of Mr Bush's presidency. In presenting "The Way Forward in Iraq", he will be ordering a troop increase at a moment when his approval rating hovers at a dismal 30 to 35 per cent, and only one in 10 Americans supports sending more troops.

As Mr Bush completed preparations yesterday, the White House confirmed that he would nominate Zalmay Khalilzad, the Afghan-born ambassador to Iraq, to serve as US envoy to the United Nations.

Not only are the Democrats, who now control the Senate and House of Representatives, promising to fight a troop increase tooth and nail - perhaps with a specific congressional resolution - many military commanders are sceptical too. They point out that such measures have been tried already, and failed, and argue that more servicemen on the ground is likely to mean more US casualties.

The last major attempt to curb the violence was last summer, when American and Iraqi troops mounted a massive operation to restore order in Baghdad. But even US commanders admitted the outcome was "disappointing".

According to the Iraqi Health Ministry, civilian deaths hit an all-time high of 3,293 in November 2006 before falling to about 2,700 last month.

Language itself underlines the domestic problem facing the administration as it tries to sell its new policy, widely compared to a gambler raising of his stake when he has a weak hand, rather than cutting his losses - in the case of Iraq by embarking on a phased pullout of troops, as urged by Democrats, some leading Republicans and the bipartisan Iraq Study Group report, issued in December.

The word "escalation" was banned from the outset, as evoking the failed war in Vietnam. The Pentagon and White House have talked of a "surge", implying a sharp short-term increase. Now some officials are describing the coming boost as a "plus-up," as if to downplay its significance.

However named, the policy has already put Mr Bush on a collision course with Congress where Democrats say the White House is brazenly ignoring the result of November's midterm elections, in which voters demanded withdrawal, not further build-up in Iraq.

Mr Bush is under huge pressure to specify for how long, and under what conditions, the extra troops will be there, after the failure thus far of Iraqi forces to take over responsibility for security, in Baghdad especially.