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BAGHDAD, July 19: US-led forces, guerillas and criminal gangs have killed nearly 25,000 Iraqi civilians, police, and army recruits since the war began in March 2003, according to a survey by a US-British non-government group.

Nearly half the deaths in the two years surveyed to March 2005 were in Baghdad, where a fifth of Iraq’s 25 million people live, according to media reports monitored by Iraq Body Count.

Of the total, nearly 37 per cent were killed by US-led forces, the group said.

The survey found that almost a third of civilian deaths – over 8,000 people – occurred during the invasion itself, from March 20 to May 1, 2003, when US-led forces carried out their ‘shock and awe’ bombing campaign on Baghdad.

In the first year after the invasion, around 6,000 civilians were killed, a number that nearly doubled in the second year, indicating a general increase in violence. The group said deaths caused by insurgents and criminals had risen steadily.

US-led forces were found to be chiefly responsible for deaths, with criminals a close second at 36 per cent, while guerillas accounted for a surprisingly small 9.5 per cent.

The US military and the Iraqi government disputed the findings. The US military said it did not target civilians.

“We do everything we can to avoid civilian casualties in all of our operations,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Steve Boylan, a spokesman in Baghdad.

“Since the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom until now, we have categorically not targeted civilians. We take great care in all operations to ensure we go after the intended targets.”

The Iraqi government said: “We welcome the attention given by this report to Iraqi victims of violence but we consider that it is mistaken in claiming that the plague of terrorism has killed fewer Iraqis than multi-national forces.”

Iraq Body Count said its findings provided ‘a unique insight into the human consequences of the US-led invasion’.

“Leaders who commit troops to wars of intervention have diminishingly few excuses for failing to seriously weigh the human costs,” it said in a 28-page dossier.

The numbers included civilians, army and police recruits, and serving police. They do not include serving Iraqi military or combatant deaths, for which there are ‘no reliable accounts...either official or unofficial’.

The group took its data, including figures showing more than 42,000 civilians were wounded in the same period, from an analysis of more than 10,000 press and media reports.

The death toll almost mirrors a UN-funded survey conducted last year, which found some 24,000 conflict-related deaths since the US-led invasion.

Another survey, published in Britain’s Lancet medical journal last October, found nearly 100,000 deaths in the 18 months after the invasion, more than half due to violence. These findings were contested by US and British officials.

Since the media in Iraq is forced to focus on Baghdad for security reasons, it is likely that Iraq Body Count’s death toll throughout the country is under-estimated.

That would not appear to tally with the situation on the ground, where insurgent violence is rife. The Iraqi government disagreed with the finding.—Reuters