Iraq fights public relations battle over death tolls

As Iraq struggles to stem spiralling violence in the latest chapter of its years-long war against militants, authorities are waging a public relations battle over the number of people killed.

The government has downplayed the number of deaths from attacks in its official statements, even as violence in Iraq has reached levels not seen since 2008.

It has also challenged media reports on unrest, saying some were as dangerous as attacks themselves.

While the UN says that more than 4,000 people have been killed in Iraq violence so far in 2013, an AFP review of more than 1,700 interior and defence ministry statements issued this year and archived on their websites found only a tiny fraction of that figure was publicly acknowledged.

The interior ministry statements contained references to the deaths of about 120 civilians and security forces in attacks, while the defence ministry mentioned about 30 Iraqi security forces and civilians having died.

The Iraqi government is clearly concerned about public perceptions of violence.

The interior ministry issued a statement this month slamming what it termed "fabricated news and untrue statistics" in reports on attacks.

"The malicious media attacks launched by some media organisations ... are not less dangerous than these attacks themselves," the ministry said.

"The language of numbers is important for Al-Qaeda, and the process of some media organisations adopting this" is "encouraging Al-Qaeda to move forward in targeting the Iraqi citizen," interior ministry spokesman Brigadier General Saad Maan said in an interview with AFP.

A senior army officer told AFP that the Iraqi government's concern over death tolls has led it to release incomplete numbers.

"The statistics that are mentioned in defence and interior ministry statements do not include the final numbers of victims of terrorist attacks," the officer said on condition of anonymity.

Instead, "there are orders from the senior leadership to highlight the activities of security forces and their killing of terrorists."

Government spokesman Ali Mussawi denied that allegation, saying that "we never gave any orders to reduce the statistics."

But the Iraqi government privately compiles much more comprehensive figures than those mentioned in its public statements.

According to those figures, which are obtained by AFP and other media organisations but not officially released, violence in Iraq has killed 2,472 civilians and security forces members so far this year.

Maan said the interior ministry's online statements were not exhaustive and rather covered major incidents, but they made no mention of some of the worst days of violence of the year.

Not all of the interior ministry's statements give lower death tolls than other sources, and some referred to attacks apparently not mentioned elsewhere. But in other cases, the difference in tolls is stark.

On August 15, for example, the ministry issued a statement saying that bombings in Baghdad killed three people, while sources told AFP that attacks killed 27, among them 24 in the capital.

And on August 11, the ministry said that 21 people were killed in attacks the day before, while sources told AFP that 74 people died that day.

AFP requires that death tolls be confirmed by either one credible named source or by two credible sources who speak on condition of anonymity.

Maan and other officials also periodically give tolls from attacks in interviews with the Iraqiya state television, but they too are often lower than those from other sources.

Maan attributed the differing figures to factors including journalists rushing to break a story and reliance on inaccurate sources.

The defence ministry has meanwhile issued multiple statements in August on wide-ranging anti-insurgent operations it said resulted in the arrest of more than 900 people and the killing of over a dozen militants.

None of the August statements reviewed by AFP mentioned Iraqi military casualties, while security and medical sources have reported the deaths of more than 50 soldiers this month.

"Not revealing the figures is an attempt to show the situation is different from what it is," said Essam al-Fayli, a professor of political history at Baghdad's Mustansariyah University.

"Announcing the real numbers would weaken their political position," Fayli said of Iraq's main political parties.