Around 162,000 people, almost 80 per cent of them civilians, were killed in Iraq from the start of the 2003 US-led invasion up to last year's withdrawal of American forces, a British NGO said on Monday.
Iraq Body Count (IBC) warned that, contrary to apparent trends in figures released by the Iraqi government, the level of violence has changed little from mid-2009, though attacks are markedly down from when the country was in the throes of sectarian war in 2006 and 2007.
In all, the non-governmental organisation said an estimated 162,000 people were killed in Iraq in the nearly nine years of conflict.
It said around 79 per cent of the fatalities were civilians, while the remainder included US soldiers, Iraqi security forces, and insurgents.
"The violence peaked in late 2006 but was sustained at high levels until the second half of 2008 -- nearly 90 per cent of the deaths occurred by 2009," IBC said in a statement.
But it warned that "there has now been no noticeable downward trend (in civilian deaths) since mid-2009."
"Recent trends indicate a persistent low-level conflict in Iraq that will continue to kill civilians at a similar rate for years to come. While these data indicate no improvement, time will tell whether the withdrawal of US forces will have an effect on casualty levels."
US troops, who at their peak numbered nearly 170,000 on as many as 505 bases in Iraq, completed their withdrawal from the country on December 18 and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki dubbed Saturday to be "Iraq Day", marking when the bilateral pact allowing American forces to stay expired.
IBC said it had recorded more than 114,000 civilian deaths in Iraq since the invasion, and said the addition of figures from US military logs published by whistleblower website WikiLeaks, as well as officially recorded US and Iraqi security deaths and insurgent tolls, put the overall figure at 162,000.
The worst non-civilian group affected were the Iraqi police, with 9,019 reported deaths, and Baghdad was the most dangerous city in the country, with half of the recorded deaths, equating to 2.5 times the national average.
A total of 4,474 US soldiers died in Iraq, as well.
The NGO's overall toll differed markedly from that published by the Iraqi government, which said on Sunday that 2,645 people were killed in violence in 2011, compared to IBC's toll of 4,059.
Iraqi government figures, unlike IBC data, indicate attacks decreased significantly last year from 2010, when 3,605 people were killed.
The government's monthly data, which does not go back to 2003, puts the death toll since the beginning of 2007 at 34,485.
The IBC release came a day after Maliki called for Iraq to kick-start the rebuilding of its violence-wracked economy and infrastructure, with the country mired in a political standoff between the Shiite-led government and a key Sunni-backed bloc that has raised sectarian tensions.
"The coming period is no less important or dangerous than the previous stage," Maliki said Sunday during a speech in Baghdad's Al-Rasheed hotel, in the capital's heavily-fortified Green Zone. "Our work has just begun."
Maliki had declared last Saturday to be a national holiday dubbed "Iraq Day", and said the country's days of dictatorship and one-party rule were behind it, even as rival politicians have accused him of centralising decision-making power.
Iraq finance minister unhurt in bombing-spokesman
Iraqi Finance Minister Rafie al-Esawi, a prominent Sunni Muslim politician, escaped unharmed when a roadside bomb exploded near his car and wounded two of his security guards, his office and a health official said on Monday.
Esawi is one of the leaders of the Sunni-supported, cross-sectarian Iraqiya political bloc, ensnared in a crisis triggered when Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki sought the arrest of a Sunni vice president and the ouster of his own deputy, another prominent Sunni, last month.
The crisis threatens Iraq's fragile power-sharing government, a fractious alliance of Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish factions that has made little headway on legislation since it was formed a year ago.
Esawi was in a convoy of vehicles heading to Baghdad on Sunday when a bomb exploded in the town of Ishaqi, 100 km (60 miles) north of the capital, said Zaid Mohammed, the finance ministry's media manager.
"It was a roadside bomb placed on the main road targeting the convoy of Doctor Rafie in al-Ishaqi town yesterday evening," Mohammed told Reuters.
Esawi had attended a funeral in Salahuddin province, he said.
Two local police officers denied that there had been any such attack. But a local health official confirmed two of Esawi's guards had been hurt in a bombing.
"We received two wounded security guards of Rafie al-Esawi. We did the medically required procedures and took shrapnel from their bodies," said Jasim al-Dulaimi, the head of the health operations centre in Salahuddin province.
The latest political crisis erupted shortly after the last U.S. troops rolled out of Iraq on Dec. 18.
Maliki announced an arrest warrant had been issued for Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, on charges of running death squads. He also asked parliament to remove Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq because he compared Maliki with Saddam Hussein.
A few days later a spate of bombings in mainly Shi'ite areas in Baghdad killed at least 72 people and raised fears of a return to the sectarian conflict that drove Iraq to the brink of civil war in 2006-07.
Esawi was named along with Iraqiya leader Iyad Allawi as co-author of an editorial in the New York Times last week that said Iraq was headed towards a "sectarian autocracy that carries with it the threat of devastating civil war."