Ever since the invasion in 2003 the US military and later US-supported Iraqi governments have sought to conceal the number of Iraqi civilians being killed. The US Army for long denied that it counted the number of civilians killed by its soldiers. The Iraqi Ministry of Health also refused to reveal to the UN the civilian casualty figures.
Now, for the first time, the health ministry in Baghdad has told the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq, which publishes a bimonthly report on human rights, the exact death toll recorded by hospitals around the country. The central morgue in Baghdad provides figures for unidentified bodies, of which there were 1,595 in June. In the first six months of the year the number of Iraqi civilians dying violently rose by 77 per cent.
The UN report paints a picture of Iraqi society dissolving under the stress of cumulative violence. Nobody is safe. A tennis coach and two players were shot dead in Baghdad for wearing shorts. Militias threaten the families of homosexuals "stating they will begin killing family members unless men are handed over or killed by the family". Sectarian differences are behind most killings. Assassinations are often carried out by the security forces themselves. On June 3, for instance, 50 police cars surrounded the al-Arab mosque in Basra and killed 10 of the 20 people inside. Sunni suicide bombers attack crowded Shia mosques and markets in order to cause maximum casualties.
Kidnapping, often of children, is common and the victims are frequently killed regardless of whether or not they have paid a ransom. "In one case the body of 12-year-old Osama was reportedly found by the Iraqi police in a plastic bag after his family paid a ransom of $30,000 [£16,300]. The boy had been sexually assaulted by the kidnappers, before being hanged by his own clothing. The police captured members of this gang who confessed to raping and killing many boys and girls before Osama."
Many Iraqis have fled the country, mostly to Jordan and Syria, to avoid the violence. Syria now has 351,000 and Jordan 450,000 of these refugees, including 40 per cent of all Iraqi professionals, according to the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. It is increasingly difficult to get into Jordan from Iraq but Syria still issues visas easily.
All of the 18 Iraqi provinces are dangerous, outside the three Kurdish provinces. The health ministry revealed for the first time in June that 50,000 Iraqis have been killed violently since 2003, but added that this was probably an under-estimate. Medical care for the wounded is declining because so many doctors have left the country. The ministry says 106 doctors and 164 nurses have been killed.
Doctors in Baghdad hospitals complain that even the operating theatres are not safe because soldiers or militiamen will order them to stop an operation half way through.
Parents dare not let their children wander the dangerous streets of Baghdad alone, but until a few days ago they could give them a treat by taking them to al-Jillawi’s toyshop, the biggest and best in the city, its windows invitingly filled with Playstations, Barbie dolls and bicycles.
They go there no longer. Today the shop on 14 Ramadan Street in the once-affluent al-Mansur district is closed, with a black mourning flag draped across its front. The three sons and the teenage grandson of the owner, Mehdi al-Jillawi, were shutting down for the evening recently, bringing in bicycles and tricycles on display on the pavement in front of the shop. As they did so, two BMWs stopped close to them, and several gunmen got out armed with assault rifles. They opened fire at point-blank range, killing the young men.
Sectarian slaughter is not the only way to die in Iraq.
Yesterday US troops killed five people, including two women and a child, in the city of Baquba during a raid, claiming they had been shot at. At best it was a tragic error, at worst it spoke to the cavalier attitude of the US towards Iraqi civilian lives. Local police said that a man had fired from a rooftop at the Americans because he thought a hostile militia force was approaching.
While the eyes of the world are elsewhere, Baghdad is still dying and the daily toll is hitting record levels. While the plumes of fire and smoke over Lebanon have dominated headlines for 11 days, with Britain and the US opposing a UN call for an immediate ceasefire, another Bush-Blair foreign policy disaster is unfolding in Iraq.
In a desperate effort to stem the butchery, the government yesterday imposed an all-day curfew on Baghdad, but tens of thousands of its people have already run for their lives. In some parts of the city, dead bodies are left to rot in the baking summer heat because nobody dares to remove them. I drove through empty streets in the heart of the city yesterday, taking a zigzag course to avoid police checkpoints that we thought might be doubling as death squads. Few shops were open. Those still doing business are frantically trying to sell their stock. A sign above one shop read: "Italian furniture: 75 per cent reductions.”
Iraqis are terrified in a way that I have never seen before, since I first visited Baghdad in 1978. Sectarian massacres happen almost daily. The UN says 6,000 civilians were slaughtered in May and June, but this month has been far worse. In many districts it has become difficult to buy bread because Sunni assassins have killed all the bakers who are traditionally Shia.
Baghdad is now breaking up into a dozen different hostile cities, Sunni or Shia, heavily armed and living in terror of the other side. On July 9, Shia gunmen from the black-clad Mehdi Army entered the largely Sunni al-Jihad district in west Baghdad and killed 40 Sunni after dragging them from their cars or stopping them at false checkpoints. Within hours the Sunni militias struck back with car bombs killing more than 60 Shia.
The Iraqi government is a prisoner of the Green Zone, the heavily fortified enclave defended by US troops in the centre of Baghdad. Entering it is like visiting another country. Soldiers at the gates spend longer looking at documents than do officials at most European frontiers. "Some ministers have never visited their ministries outside the Green Zone," said one ex-minister. "They have their officials bring them documents to sign."
It seems unlikely that Baghdad will ever come together again. Sunni are frightened of being caught in a Shia district, and vice versa. Many now carry two sets of identity documents, one Sunni and one Shia. Checkpoints manned by the Mehdi Army know this and sometimes ask people claiming to be Shia questions about Shia theology. One Shia who passed this test was still killed because he was driving a car with number plates from Anbar, a Sunni province.
Where are the Americans in all this? Iraqis who used to say that they were against the US occupation but at least the Americans prevented civil war now think that a civil war has started regardless of their presence.
The Iraqi army and police are themselves divided along sectarian lines. Recognizing this, the Shia-controlled Interior Ministry ludicrously suggested that people challenge the ferocious police commanders and demand their identity cards in order to distinguish real police from death squads. It is hard to think of a surer way of getting oneself killed.
I never expected the occupation of Iraq by the US and Britain to end happily. But I did not foresee the present catastrophe. Baghdad has survived the Iran-Iraq war, the 1991 Gulf War, UN sanctions, more bombing and, finally, a savage guerrilla war. Now the city is finally splitting apart, and – most surprising of all – this disaster scarcely gets a mention on the news as the world watches the destruction of Beirut.