A new United Nations report says violence in Iraq is continuing to claim lives at very high levels. But the U.N. says it can no longer give numbers to back up its assessment, because Iraq's government has refused to release statistics on violent deaths for inclusion in the U.N.'s quarterly review. VOA Middle East Correspondent Challiss McDonough has more from Cairo.

The U.N.'s first quarterly human rights report to be released since the start of the Baghdad security plan says sectarian violence continues at a high level.

The 30-page report lays heavy blame for the deteriorating security situation on insurgents and armed groups, saying the Iraqi government faces immense security challenges.

But it also expresses unease about some aspects of the government's own behavior, notably the treatment of detainees held by the ministries of defense and interior. The U.N. says torture and ill-treatment of detainees is a matter of "utmost concern," and the government's continuing failure to stop it "can only encourage the climate of impunity that prevails today."

It also condemns the deliberate targeting of schools, universities, teachers and students, as well as troubling attacks on religious and ethnic minorities.

The Iraqi government immediately hit back. Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's office issued a statement calling the U.N. report "inaccurate" and "unbalanced," and said it calls the U.N.'s credibility into question.

For the first time, the U.N. report did not include official statistics on the number of people killed, saying the Ministry of Health has refused to provide them.

The U.N. urged the government to reconsider, calling it "a matter of regret" that the most reliable death figures are no longer available. U.N. human rights officer Ivana Vuco says government transparency is crucial to establishing stability.

"We find the decision to be rather unfortunate, because the figures I think were helping us, and you as well, to understand the scope of the problem," said Vuco. "And in our view, it is the government's responsibility and they are probably the only ones with the real capacity to gather the figures in a systematic manner."

The previous report, issued in January, said more than 34,000 civilians were killed last year, more than 6,000 of them in November and December alone. The U.N. disputes Iraqi allegations that those figures were exaggerated, saying they were official numbers issued by the government itself.

Vuco and another U.N. official say the government did not give an official reason for its refusal to release the figures.

"Officially, we were not told the reasons why we could not get the government figures for this report," she added. "Unofficially, however, in a number of follow-up meetings to the decision, we were told that they were concerned that people would construe the figures to portray the situation very negatively, and that would further undermine their efforts to establish some kind of stability and security in the country."

The U.N. report also expresses concern about recent developments in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. It says there were infringements on freedom of expression in the region. It notes "a lack of due process with regard to detainees held by Kurdish security forces."

It also says there was a worrying rise in violence against women in three regions, Duhok, Irbil and Sulimaniya, especially so-called "honor killings," in which a woman is killed by close relatives for actions that allegedly dishonor the family.