BAGHDAD, 10 Aug 2006 (IRIN) - Fear of violence among Iraqis has been amplified by the latest violent death toll of nearly 2,000 in July, making it by far the deadliest month this year. Sectarian violence has overtaken insurgency as the cause of death, officials said.
"Day after day we find that Iraq is more impossible to live in," said Mustafa al-Khuri, 36, father of four and a hairdresser in the capital, Baghdad. "With the latest numbers released by the government, we find that even to go to buy food is dangerous, and it is impossible even for our children to go to school due to the increasing violence."
According to statistics from the ministries of health and interior, nearly 1,800 Iraqis were killed in July in sectarian violence and criminal attacks. The Health Ministry's Forenic Medicine Institute estimates that the actual number is nearly 2,000, because a number of bodies are given directly to families from the hospital.
The number of violent deaths has risen steadily since January, when there were about 600. Of those, 113 of them were due to sectarian violence; the rest were the result of the US military fighting insurgents and other causes.
A year ago, in July 2005, Iraq had 1,100 violent deaths - none of them due to sectarian violence.
Sectarian violence took a dramatic upturn after 22 February, when a revered Shi'ite shrine was bombed in Samarra, north of the capital.
In the latest incident of sectarian violence, at least 35 people were killed and 90 others injured on 10 August in a suicide bomb attack at a market in the southern Iraqi city of Najaf. The attack occurred in close proximity to the Imam Ali shrine, one of the most sacred Shi'ite Muslim sites. A Sunni group claimed responsibility.
Experts say that many Sunnis who were formerly insurgents attacking the US military are instead aiming their guns at the Shi'ites.
Dr Sabah al-Husseiny, deputy health minister, said that 70 percent of the deaths reported since January were due to sectarian violence, fuelled by the rise of criminal gangs and death squads nationwide. But in 2005, almost no deaths were caused by sectarian violence - and about 75 percent were due to military actions and the insurgency, he said.
Now, al-Husseiny said, "Each day the methods of killing are more horrifying."
Torture, strangulation, and multiple gun shots to the head are increasingly common, said Dr Fa'aq Amin, director of the Forensic Medicine Institute at the Ministry of Health.
"Instead of the government's new plans improving security in Iraq, it looks like they are worsening the problem," Amin said, referring to the reconciliation plan announced in June.
Government officials emphasised that the rise in violence is largely due to the growing number of extremist vigilantes and criminal gangs countrywide. For example, a vigilante might shoot a teenage couple kissing on the street for improper behaviour.
Gang members sit in ordinary cafes offering to carry out contract killings along sectarian lines.
"The government is focusing on terrorists and insurgents, but now we see that the reality is different," said Mahmoud Obaid, 54, a doctor and professor at Mustansiriyah University. "It has to change its plan and tackle the criminality issue faster."
Fearing that the violence is inescapable, more Iraqis have started to pack their bags to flee the country.
"We cannot stay in Iraq one more day," said Ibrahim Younis, 35, a government employee who just quit his job and plans to take his family to Jordan. "Death is near the door of any innocent civilian just because he prays in a different way."
In Jordan, Younis said, "even if I have to work as a garbage collector, my family is going to be safe."
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