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UN: Civilian Death Toll Hits New High in Iraq

Nearly 4,000 Iraqi civilians were killed in sectarian violence in October, the highest monthly toll since the U.S.-led invasion began. A new report from the United Nations warns the influence of illegal armed militias is growing and torture is rampant despite Iraqi government promises to address human rights abuses. From northern Iraq, VOA's Margaret Besheer has more.

The U.N. report says 3,709 Iraqis were killed in October - 364 more people than were killed the previous month, and the bloodiest month since the war began in 2003.

Until October, July's death toll of more than 3,500 people had been the deadliest.

The dead were overwhelmingly male, the victims of sectarian attacks and counter-attacks that have been plaguing Baghdad and its outskirts for nearly a year.

The killings are often brutal, with most of the victims showing signs of torture, including drill holes in their bodies, and execution-style killings.

Information in the report was gathered from Iraq's health ministry and hospitals.

Gianni Magazzeni, the chief of the U.N. Assistance Mission in Baghdad, says tens of thousands of Iraqis have been displaced since insurgents bombed one of Shi'ite Islam's most sacred shrines earlier this year.

"UNHCR [the United Nations Refugee Agency] estimates that over 418,392 people have been displaced due to sectarian violence and 15,240 due to military operations since the bombing at the al-Askari Shrine in Samarra on 22 February 2006," Magazzeni. "Some $1.6 million have sought refuge in neighboring countries since 2003."

Many of those who have fled Iraq are professors, judges, doctors and other professionals. Members of these professions are increasingly the target of kidnappers and death squads. Also under attack are those who tell the story of what is happening in Iraq. In the last two months, the report says 18 journalists were killed.

The spiraling violence is expected to the be main topic next week, when President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki meet in Jordan.