The memo from top U.N. envoy for Iraq Ashraf Qazi to several senior U.N. officials said Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki's office had twice instructed the ministry not to release the numbers to the United Nations and that his office would now be responsible for releasing any such information.
The U.N. mission in Iraq had published the Health Ministry's numbers in its bimonthly reports about the human rights situation in Iraq. The figures were seen as one of the rare reliable indicators of the civilian suffering in Iraq — and U.N. officials even suspected they have underreported the actual number of civilian deaths.
The figures gained widespread international attention in July, when they showed that some 6,000 Iraqi civilians had died over the previous two months, or about 100 people a day, the victims of assassinations, bombings, kidnappings, and torture. In the next report, released in September, the civilian death figures painted an even grimmer picture, showing civilian deaths had risen to an all-time high of 6,599 for July and August.
In the memo, Qazi said Al-Maliki's spokesman had told the U.N. mission, known by its acronym UNAMI, that the Health Ministry figures were overstated.
Qazi said, however, that Al-Maliki had earlier confirmed the figures during an official visit to London. He said the government decision "may affect" his mission's ability to report on civilian deaths in the country.
"UNAMI figures were never publicly contested by the government and may have contributed to an increased international awareness regarding the severe consequences that the conflict in Iraq is having on civilians," Qazi wrote in the memo.
The contents of the document were first reported in Friday's Washington Post.
Qazi, contacted in Baghdad on Friday, would not comment on the memo.
Iraq's deputy U.N. Ambassador Feisal Amin al-Istrabadi said the change was meant to make sure the casualty count was as accurate as possible. He denied the government was trying to mask the reality on the ground in Iraq, saying it would be impossible to do that.
"The security situation in Iraq is what it is, and the people of Iraq are aware of that," Istrabadi said. "It is not a situation whereby manipulating numbers, you can fool people into thinking it's one thing where it's another. It may rankle some bureaucratic feathers but I don't think it makes any difference."
The numbers released to the U.N. were based on two sets of data from the Health Ministry. One figure was collected from the Medico Legal Institute in Baghdad, which tallied the number of unidentified civilians killed violently and brought to the Baghdad morgue.
The other figure, maintained by the Health Ministry itself, recorded the number of people violently killed brought to hospitals in the entire country except for the Kurdistan region.
Other casualty figures for Iraq have varied widely. Earlier this month, researchers from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and the Al Mustansiriya University in Baghdad released a study saying nearly 655,000 Iraqis have died in the war that began in 2003. That was far higher than other estimates, and President Bush has said he did not believe the numbers.
Qazi's note mentioned those figures and said his office hoped to comment on them soon.
"It must be noted that increased restrictions on the release of official data concerning victims takes place at a time of increasing media attention and the release of scientific data on the subject," the memo said.
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric refused to comment on the contents of the note because it was private. However, he said one of the U.N. mission's specific tasks was to report on the situation in the country.
"The U.N. has enjoyed extensive cooperation with the Iraqi Ministry of Health and the Medico Legal Institute in Baghdad and we very much hope that that cooperation will continue," Dujarric said.