BAGHDAD, Iraq - At least 3,240 civilians died across Iraq during a month of war, including 1,896 in Baghdad, according to a five-week Associated Press investigation.

The count is still fragmentary, and the complete toll - if it is ever tallied - is sure to be significantly higher.

Several surveys have looked at civilian casualties within Baghdad, but the AP tally is the first attempt to gauge the scale of such deaths from one end of the country to the other, from Mosul in the north to Basra in the south.

The AP count was based on records from 60 of Iraq's 124 hospitals - including almost all of the large ones - and covers the period between March 20, when the war began, and April 20, when fighting was dying down and coalition forces announced they would soon declare major combat over. AP journalists traveled to all of these hospitals, studying their logs, examining death certificates where available and interviewing officials about what they witnessed.

Many of the other 64 hospitals are in small towns and were not visited because they are in dangerous or inaccessible areas. Some hospitals that were visited had incomplete or war-damaged casualty records.

Even if hospital records were complete, they would not tell the full story. Many of the dead were never taken to hospitals, either buried quickly by their families in accordance with Islamic custom, or lost under rubble.

The AP excluded all counts done by hospitals whose written records did not distinguish between civilian and military dead, which means hundreds, possibly thousands, of victims in Iraq's largest cities and most intense battles aren't reflected in the total.

During the first weeks of the war, the Iraqi government made its own attempt to keep track of civilian deaths, but that effort fell apart as U.S. troops neared Baghdad and the government began to topple.

The U.S. military did not count civilian casualties because "our efforts are focused on military tasks," said Lt. Col. Jim Cassella, a Pentagon spokesman. The British Defense Ministry said it didn't count casualties either.

Cassella said getting an accurate count would have been nearly impossible because of the amount of weaponry used by both sides over wide swaths of a country of 24 million people.

In the 1991 Gulf War an estimated 2,278 civilians were killed, according to Iraqi civil defense authorities. No U.S. or independent count is known to have been made. That war consisted of seven weeks of bombing and 100 hours of ground war, and did not take U.S. forces into any Iraqi cities.

This time it was very different. In a war in which the Iraqi soldiery melted away into crowded cities, changed into plainclothes or wore no uniform to begin with, separating civilian and military casualties is often impossible.

Witnesses say Saddam Hussein's fighters attacked from ambulances and taxis and donned women's chadors or Bedouin robes, creating an atmosphere in which U.S. troops couldn't be sure who their enemy was.

Adding to the civilian toll was the regime's tactic of parking its troops and weapons in residential neighborhoods, creating targets for U.S. bombs that increased the casualties among noncombatants.

And while the great majority of civilian deaths appear to have been caused by American U.S. and British attacks, witnesses say some - even a rough estimate is impossible - were caused by the Iraqis themselves: by exploding Iraqi ammunition stored in residential neighborhoods, by falling Iraqi anti-aircraft rounds aimed at U.S. warplanes, or by Iraqi fire directed at American troops.

The United States said its sophisticated weaponry minimized the toll, and around the country are sites that, to look at them, bolster the claim: missiles that tore deep into government buildings but left the surrounding houses untouched.

"Did the Americans bomb civilians? Yes. But one should be realistic," said Dr. Hameed Hussein al-Aaraji, the new director of Baghdad's al-Kindi Hospital. "Saddam ran a dirty war. He put weapons inside schools, inside mosques. What could they do?"

Among the documents studied by AP journalists was the register at Kadhamiya General Hospital in Baghdad. Someone has taped up the shredded binding, as if that could fix the horrors inside. There are pages bathed in dried, reddish-brown blood, their letters smeared and unintelligible.

It and other registers at hospitals across the country record the names, ages and addresses of patients, the diagnoses and operations, the recoveries, and the deaths. They also list professions: for example, butcher, carpenter, soldier, student, or policeman. The AP investigation had to depend on the accuracy of the hospitals in distinguishing between soldier and civilians as there was no way to verify the records.

Some of the best record-keeping was in Baghdad, where AP journalists visited all 24 hospitals that took in war casualties. Their logs provided a count of 1,896 civilians killed. There were certainly more civilians dead; a few hospitals lost count as fighting intensified.

In some parts of the country, records are more spotty. The three civilian hospitals in Basra, Iraq's second largest city, recorded the deaths of 413 people. But while doctors estimate 85 percent were civilian, they have no evidence, so AP didn't include numbers from Basra in its count.

Some hospitals that began the war keeping records had to stop. The fighting came to them - in some cases, inside their front doors.

Doctors at Nasiriyah's Republic Hospital said seven patients were killed in their beds when a shell hit the building April 7. At Baghdad's Yarmouk Hospital, doctors fled when U.S. tanks shelled a hospital building seized by Iraqi fighters. When they returned five days later, 26 patients were dead.

It will take months or more before anything like a final count emerges. One survey is being done by the advocacy group Human Rights Watch, another by the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, which hopes to win U.S. compensation for victims or their relatives.

Meanwhile, from city to city, block to block, house to house, Iraqis are trying to come to terms with their losses. For many, the personal tragedy is more important than whether the casualty count is 3,000, or double that, or more.

There is little agreement about whether being freed from Saddam's tyranny was worth the cost in lives.

"If they didn't want to kill civilians, why did they fire into civilian areas?" asked Ayad Jassim Ibrahim, a 32-year-old Basra fireman who said his brother Alaa was killed by shrapnel from a U.S. missile that tore into his living room.

Al-Aaraji, at al-Kindi hospital in Baghdad, saw things differently.

"It was a war," he said. "This is the price of liberty."

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