BAGHDAD - U.N. officials accused Iraq yesterday of withholding civilian death figures to try to deflect attention from escalating violence and a worsening humanitarian crisis despite the U.S.-led Baghdad security crackdown.

Those conclusions by the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq drew a sharp rebuke from Iraq's political leadership, which called the report "unbalanced" and said it raised questions about the credibility of the U.N. staff in Iraq.

The clashing views over the document - which covered three months ending March 31 - reflect a wider debate that goes beyond attempts to tally the bloodshed: whether the Baghdad security operation has made any lasting progress since the crackdown was launched in mid-February.

While some measures suggest the capital is less violent - such as apparent Shiite death squad killings reportedly on the decline - bombings blamed on Sunni insurgents have continued with deadly frequency.

"Armed groups from all sides continued to target the civilian population," said the 30-page report.

The report avoided any judgment of the military effectiveness of the drive to regain control of Baghdad. But it took issue with tactics used against Iraqi civilians in the city - alleging, for example, that whole families were often taken into custody at random during security sweeps.

"The government of Iraq continued to face immense security challenges in the face of growing violence and armed opposition to its authority and the rapidly worsening humanitarian crisis," the report said.

It added that "the use of torture and other inhumane treatment" in government detention centers "continues to be of utmost concern." The report did not give specific locations, however.

In the report, the U.N. mission noted that government officials had claimed "an initial drop" in the number of killings in late February after the launch of the Baghdad security plan. But the report said the number of casualties "rose again in March."

That finding was based on Iraqi and foreign media reports of attacks, the United Nations said. The report was unable to provide official, comprehensive death figures because the Iraqi government refused to release them.

During a news conference, U.N. human rights officer Ivana Vuco said the government did not give an official reason for refusing to release the numbers. But she said the government was apparently "becoming increasingly concerned about the figures being used to portray the situation as very grim."

In a statement, the Iraqi government expressed deep reservations about the report, terming it "inaccurate in presenting information" and lacking "credibility in many of its points."

The furor draws attention to the absence of a comprehensive, accurate count of the number of Iraqis who have died since the war began in March 2003.

Last year, a study by British scientists published in the Lancet medical journal concluded that more than 600,000 Iraqis had been killed since the U.S.-led invasion. President Bush said he did not consider it "a credible report."

Iraq Body Count, a private group that relies on published reports, estimates the civilian death toll for the war between about 62,400 and 68,430.

Figures compiled by the Associated Press from police reports show that violent deaths have declined in Baghdad since the start of the security operation but have increased outside the capital.

The most dramatic decline has been in the number of bodies found across the capital, usually attributed to sectarian death squads. At least 1,041 bodies were found in Baghdad between Feb. 14 and April 24, compared with at least 2,273 bodies during the 70 days before the crackdown, the AP figures show.

Sadr Says Wall Is 'Racist' Plot

Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr yesterday joined

in the criticism of a three-mile-long concrete wall the U.S. military is building

around a Sunni stronghold. He said the wall was a "sectarian, racist and unjust" plot by the Americans to divide Iraqis.

Hours later, Sadr's supporters demonstrated in Baghdad's Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City, chanting, "No, no to division." Others carried a banner that read, "The building of the Baghdad

wall is the beginning of Baghdad's division."

Sadr's Mahdi Army militia has been blamed for much of the sectarian bloodshed that the United States says the wall is designed to stop.

Elsewhere, a suicide bomber struck a police station

50 miles northeast of Baghdad yesterday, killing four Iraqi officers.

Sixteen people, including

11 civilians, were hurt. The fatalities were among 41 deaths in explosions, mortar attacks and shootings.

- Associated PressEndText