BAGHDAD (AP) – Iraqi civilian deaths dropped to their lowest level since the start of the Baghdad security operation, government figures showed Sunday, suggesting signs of progress in tamping down violence in the capital.
But American casualties are running high as U.S. forces step up pressure on Sunni and Shiite extremists in and around Baghdad.
At least 1,227 Iraqi civilians were killed in June along with 190 policemen and 31 soldiers, an officer at the Iraqi Interior Ministry’s operations room said. The officer spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the figures.
That represented a 36 percent drop from the ministry’s May figures – 1,949 civilian deaths along with 127 policemen and 47 soldiers.
June’s figures were the lowest monthly tally this year. In January, President Bush ordered nearly 30,000 soldiers, Marines and airmen to Iraq in a major push to stabilize the capital so that Iraq’s leaders can hammer out power-sharing agreements for a lasting peace.
The Baghdad security operation was launched in mid-February, although the last of the American reinforcements arrived in Iraq only last month.
The accuracy of civilian death figures in Iraq has been in doubt since the start of the conflict and may reflect only a portion of the casualties nationwide.
Still, the figures suggest a downward trend, which may be due to U.S. military pressure on insurgents in Baghdad and the surrounding areas.
The commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad, Maj. Gen. Joseph F. Fil, Jr., told reporters on Friday that American and Iraqi security forces now control nearly half of the 474 neighborhoods in Baghdad – up from 19 percent in April.
At least 50 Iraqis were killed or found dead Sunday in politically motivated violence, according to police reports compiled by The Associated Press. That figure was well below the daily death tolls recorded last winter.
A U.S. military spokesman said the decrease was encouraging but that it was too early to attribute it to the crackdown.
“The synchronized effort only began two weeks ago. It’s too early to declare a trend,” said Lt. Col. Christopher Garver.
But Iraqi officials hailed the decline as a sign that the security crackdown was working.
“This is one of the results of the implementation of the security plan and the deployment of extra Iraqi and U.S. forces,” Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi said. “Such figures show that the security operations are going in the right direction and they are working as planned.”
While Iraqi civilian casualties are down, U.S. military losses are still running high. June ended the deadliest quarter for U.S. troops in Iraq since the war began in March 2003 – 330 deaths. That surpasses the 316 soldiers killed during November 2004 to January 2005.
U.S. officials say American losses are rising because the U.S. military is taking the fight to the extremists, seeking to push Sunni and Shiite militants from strongholds in and around the capital where they have operated for years.
On June 15, U.S. troops launched two large offensives, one in Diyala province northeast of Baghdad, the other in regions south of the capital. The goal is to deny insurgents sanctuaries from where they can smuggle car bombs and other deadly explosives into the capital.
Commanders in Diyala have claimed successes in dislodging insurgents, but they acknowledge three-quarters of the senior militant leaders escaped.
An Islamist Web site posted a video late Sunday of what it said was a field commander of the al-Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq in Diyala.
The masked man, sitting on the floor of a room with a Kalashnikov rifle by his side, said Diyala had become “a volcano under the feet of the crusaders,” meaning the Americans, and that “martyr brigades” of suicide attackers were awaiting orders to strike.
On Sunday, the country’s largest Sunni Arab political group, the Iraqi Islamic Party, said more than 350 people have been killed in western Baqouba, capital of Diyala province, since the offensive began there last month.
The statement, which said that some 150 homes have been destroyed, called “the Iraqi government and occupation forces to stop this massacre and differentiate between gunmen and innocent civilians.”
U.S. officials have been pressing the Iraqis to meet several goals to promote national reconciliation, including enacting laws to share the country’s oil wealth, open up the political system to Sunni Arabs and install new local governments.
On Sunday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki pledged that provincial elections will be held before the end of the year. The last provincial elections were held on Jan. 30, 2005, and were largely boycotted by the Sunni minority, resulting in a Shiite sweep even in areas with substantial Sunni populations.
In other developments, a suicide bomber Sunday detonated a dump truck packed with explosives on a major bridge across the Euphrates River north of Ramadi, injuring two people and damaging a large section of the bridge, the U.S. Marines said.
Another suicide bomber detonated an explosives-packed truck at a checkpoint at the entrance of the city of Fallujah, west of Baghdad, killing five policemen, an Iraqi officer in Fallujah said. U.S. officials said one policeman was killed and four injured.
In eastern Baghdad, a roadside bomb exploded near policemen, killing two. After the blast, gunmen sped by in a car, spraying machine gun fire, wounding three policemen and three civilians in the capital’s Zayouna neighborhood, a police officer said. Both officers spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to media.
Elsewhere in the capital, gunmen in a vehicle opened fire on a minibus carrying Shiite day laborers in the mixed district of Saydiyah, killing one passenger and wounding four, police said.
Also Sunday, the bullet-riddled body of a senior police commander was discovered in Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city about 560 kilometers (340 miles) southeast of Baghdad, police said.
Col. Nasser Hamoud, who was in charge of the city’s prisons, had been kidnapped along with three of his guards the day before, another officer said on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. The guards were released a few hours later, he said.
Hamoud’s hands and legs were bound, and his body showed signs of torture, the officer said.
He was a member of the Shiite Fadhila party, which controls Basra’s provincial government.