BAGHDAD (AP) – Violent deaths of U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians appear to have fallen sharply in Iraq in October, according to the latest Associated Press tally.

The AP’s figures mirror other reports that the levels of bloodshed are falling here. But the meaning of these statistics is disputed, and experts generally agree that the struggle for security and stability is far from over.

The number of Iraqi civilians killed fell from at least 1,023 in September to at least 875 in October, according to the AP count.

That’s the lowest monthly toll for civilian casualties in the past year, and is down sharply from the 1,216 recorded in October 2006. The numbers are based on daily reports from police, hospital officials, morgue workers and verifiable witness accounts.

The count is considered a minimum based on AP reporting; the actual number is likely higher, as many killings go unreported.

The drop in deaths among U.S. military personnel in Iraq was even more striking, according to AP’s records – down from 65 in September to at least 36 in October. The October figure is by far the lowest in the last year, and is sharply lower than the 106 deaths recorded in October 2006.

The relative period of calm – if that’s what it is – came during the Muslim fast of Ramadan, a time when militants have in the past escalated their attacks on U.S. forces.

Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former editorial editor for The Wall Street Journal, said the apparent decline in deaths reflected the success of the buildup in Iraq of U.S. military personnel, who now number 170,000. They have also moved increasingly out of massive forward operating bases into violence-plagued areas.

“I assume it’s happening because the surge is working, and working even better than those who advocated it envisioned,” said Boot, who was an advocate of expanding the deployment of U.S. troops here. “This is pretty dramatic.”

But Anthony Cordesman, an expert on the Middle East and military affairs with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the numbers he’s seen so far mostly reflect a decline in the level of lethal violence against U.S. troops in Baghdad and Anbar province.

Data collected by the General Accounting Office, he said, don’t justify the conclusion that the overall level of fighting has fallen off, or that the number of civilian deaths is declining, because they don’t paint a full picture of the conflict.

The statistics don’t reflect attacks that result in injuries, he pointed out. Nor is there reliable reporting of civilian deaths outside of Baghdad.

“I don’t question that the level of violence has gone down in Baghdad and Anbar,” he said. “But what is not clear at all is that you have reduced the level of tension between Kurd and Arab, that the level of Shiite-on-Shiite violence is down, that the level of ethnic cleansing is down.”

The reduction in U.S. losses, he said, is mostly a result of the revolt of the Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar against al-Qaida in Iraq, and not the U.S. military buildup.

And he warned that that revolt against al-Qaida was in jeopardy unless Sunni leaders get more support from the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad.

“Does focus on one set of numbers tell you that the country is moving toward stability, security and political accommodation?” Cordesman said. “The answer is no.”

There may be other, grimmer reasons the civilian death toll has receded. Sunnis have been driven out of Shiite neighborhoods, Shiites from Sunni areas and Christians out of both.

Many Iraqis have fled their country, or seldom venture out of their communities, offering fewer targets for suicide bombers or kidnappers.

Even those who think Iraq has turned a corner don’t necessarily believe that the U.S. should dramatically scale back its commitment of troops – at least in the short term.

Boot warns that the U.S. will have to maintain a military presence in Iraq for many years to come.

“We’re going to need a long-term buffer force in Iraq,” he said. “We will still need troops there to assure both sides that they will not be left to the tender mercies of their enemies.”

The Bush administration hopes to cut the number of U.S. combat brigades in Iraq by 25 percent by next summer. But some doubt that the Iraqi army will be ready to take responsibility for the country’s stability by then.

Iraqi security services are still struggling to overcome divisions between Shiites and Sunnis and build truly national forces. Iraq’s top political leaders, aligned along religious and ethnic lines, are sharply divided over where to lead the country.

Maintaining even relative calm here has taken tremendous effort. Baghdad, for example, has been turned into a fortress. Huge concrete blast walls ring buildings and highways, checkpoints choke traffic and Humvees equipped with weird protruding devices to foil roadside bombs roar through the streets.

The Iraqi government, with U.S. help, is in the process of trying to double the size of its national police force, from 16,000 to 33,000, in the space of just one year.

There has been talk among the U.S. military of declaring victory against al-Qaida here, according to news accounts, because of recent success in killing and capturing the terror group’s leaders, and disrupting its networks.

Much of that progress has been made with the aid of Sunni leaders fed up with the group’s violence.

The top commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, on Sunday lauded success in what had been some of the most volatile Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad, including Ghazaliyah, Amariyah, Azamiyah and Dora. But he said al-Qaida remains “a very dangerous and very lethal enemy.”

As if to underscore his words, a suicide bomber blew himself up Monday outside a police camp in the city of Baqouba, killing at least 29 people. The same day, Iraqi forces discovered 16 corpses in the basement shelter of a building in a Sunni-dominated area of Baghdad.

Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi blamed the killings on al-Qaida militants, who controlled the neighborhood until they were driven out about a month ago.

Associated Press writer Kim Gamel in Baghdad and the AP News Research Center in New York contributed to this report.

AP-ES-10-31-07 1656EDT

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