The United Nations said Tuesday that more than 34,000 Iraqi civilians were killed in sectarian violence last year, nearly three times the number reported dead by the Iraqi government.
Underscoring the peril faced by Iraqis, Baghdad was struck by two bombings apparently targeting Shiite neighborhoods ? one near a university as students were leaving classes for the day that killed at least 28, and another at a used motorcycle marketplace that killed at least 15 people.
The Iraqi Health Ministry did not comment on the report, which was based on information released by the Iraqi government and hospitals. The government has disputed previous figures released by the U.N. as “inaccurate and exaggerated.”
The same day the figure was released, two back-to-back explosions struck a used motorcycle marketplace in central Baghdad, killing at least 15 people and wounding 74.
The first bomb was attached to a motorcycle in the market. As the curious gathered to look at the aftermath, a suicide car bomber drove into the crowd and blew up his vehicle. Authorities said at least three policemen were among the dead.
The blast appeared to target the mainly Shiite neighborhood near the market but also was near the Sheik al-Gailani shrine, one of the holiest Sunni locations in the capital.
Raad Abbas, a 26-year-old who received shrapnel wounds in the attacks, said he had gone to the market because the city had been quieter over the past two weeks.
“Shortly after midday, I heard an explosion. Motorcycles were flying in the air, people were falling dead and wounded,” he said from his hospital bed.
The U.N. figure was released as Baghdad braces for a major security operation to be launched by the Iraqi government and U.S. forces aimed at quelling the rampant sectarian violence that has been on the rise since the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite mosque in Samarra.
Cabinet ministers and legislators loyal to the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr were instructed to end their six-week boycott of the political process, a parliamentarian in the political bloc said Tuesday, indicating that the decision was linked to the new security drive.
“We might be subjected to an attack and we should try solve the problem politically. We should not give a chance for a military strike against us,” said the legislator, speaking on condition of anonymity because the information was not yet public.
The lawmaker said the group’s return was conditional, including demands that the government set up a committee to establish a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops and a second that would set a date by which Iraqi forces were to take control of security nationwide.
The demands would give the government one month to put such a measure before parliament.
Until the walkout, the al-Sadr faction was an integral part of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s governing coalition. Six Cabinet ministers and 30 legislators who belong to the movement called the boycott after al-Maliki met with President Bush in Jordan in late November.
Much of the violence has been blamed on Shiite militias, particularly the Mahdi Army militia loyal al-Sadr. Dozens of bodies turn up on the streets of Baghdad daily, many showing signs of torture.
Gianni Magazzeni, the chief of the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq in Baghdad, said 34,452 civilians were killed and 36,685 were wounded last year.
Iraqi government figures announced in early January put last year’s civilian death toll at 12,357. When asked about the difference, Magazzeni said the U.N. figures were compiled from information obtained through the Iraqi Health Ministry, hospitals across the country and the Medico-Legal Institute in Baghdad.
“Without significant progress in the rule of law sectarian violence will continue indefinitely and eventually spiral out of control,” he warned.
Hakim al-Zamili, a deputy health minister, declined to comment on the figures, referring questions to the Baghdad morgue, which could not be reached for comment.
Magazzeni said 6,376 civilians were killed violently in November and December ? 4,731 of those in Baghdad, most as a result of gunshot wounds. He noted that was a slight decrease from the previous two month period, during which UNAMI recorded a total of 7,047 civilians killed.
The mission’s latest bimonthly report also noted that some figures were not yet included in the total for December.
The U.N. report also said that 30,842 people were detained in the country as of Dec. 31, including 14,534 in detention facilities run by U.S.-led multinational forces.
It pointed to killings targeting police, who are seen by insurgents as collaborating with the U.S. effort in Iraq. The report said the Interior Ministry had reported on Dec. 24 that 12,000 police officers had been killed since the war started in 2003.
The report also painted a grim picture for other sectors of Iraqi society, saying the violence has disrupted education by forcing schools and universities to close as well as sending professionals fleeing from the country.
At least 470,094 people throughout Iraq have been forced to leave their homes since the bombing in Samarra, according to the report.
The developments came a day after the Iraqi government hanged two of Saddam Hussein’s henchmen in an execution that left many of the ousted leader’s fellow Sunni Muslims seething after one of the accused was decapitated on the gallows.
A thickset Barzan Ibrahim plunged through the trap door and was beheaded by the jerk of the thick rope at the end of his fall, in the same execution chamber where Saddam was hanged a little over two weeks earlier.
Dozens of people, mostly schoolchildren, read Quranic verses at the graves in Tikrit as mourning continued for Ibrahim, Saddam’s half brother and former intelligence chief, and Awad Hamed al-Bandar, head of Iraq’s Revolutionary Court under Saddam.
Some 150 youths also staged a demonstration in Saddam’s hometown, 80 miles north of Baghdad, chanting “down with the pro-Iranian government” and “glory to Barzan,” but it was calmer than the day before when at least 3,000 angry Sunnis assembled for the burials.
A government video of the hanging, played at a briefing for reporters, showed Ibrahim’s body passing the camera in a blur. The body came to rest on its chest while the severed head lay a few yards away, still wearing the black hood pulled on moments before by one of Ibrahim’s five masked executioners.
At least 13 other people were killed or found dead in Iraq on Tuesday, according to police, including four who died when a roadside bomb struck a police patrol in a predominantly Shiite area of downtown Baghdad.