BAGHDAD - The US military yesterday announced the death of a Marine in Anbar province, as May ended with what could be the lowest monthly toll since American-led forces invaded five years ago.
If no additional deaths are reported, the US military toll for the month would be 21, according to the Associated Press. The last time the number of US deaths approached that level was in February 2004. At least 4,086 US personnel have been killed since the start of the war.
The number of Iraqi deaths also fell last month, but 10 people were killed yesterday when a suicide bomber blew himself up at a police checkpoint in Hit, a town west of Baghdad.
Sheik Hikmat Ilgoud, mayor of Hit, survived the suicide bombing, the Interior Ministry said. The bombing occurred minutes after the mayor's convoy left the site.
Officials said six police officers were among those killed, including the town's police chief, Colonel Khalil Ibrahim. Four civilians also were killed, and 12 other people were wounded.
Hit, 85 miles west of Baghdad, is in Anbar Province, the center of the Sunni-led insurgency before local tribal leaders joined forces with the US military against Al Qaeda in Iraq, a key factor in a steep drop in violence nationwide.
The bombing raised the number of Iraqis killed in May to at least 532, the lowest monthly death toll this year, according to an AP tally compiled from Iraqi police and military reports.
The drop in casualties comes at a time when US and Iraqi officials are claiming major gains against Al Qaeda in Iraq, a Sunni Muslim militant group, and a truce has curbed fighting with Shi'ite extremists. The top US commander in Iraq, Army General David H. Petraeus, said in Washington last month that violence had hit a four-year low and he probably would recommend further troop cuts after most of the additional 28,500 forces deployed last year leave by the end of July.
But the improved security trends have not been matched on the political front, leaving unresolved the simmering tensions between Iraq's major ethnic and religious groups, which could flare again into violence.
Talks aimed at bringing members of the main Sunni Muslim political alliance back into the Cabinet collapsed last week over who would occupy one of the seats. Most Sunni representatives quit Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government in August, accusing the country's majority Shi'ites and their ethnic Kurdish allies of refusing to share power.
US officials hope that provincial elections slated for the fall will give Sunnis a bigger stake in the government. But the vote could become a flashpoint for violence, as the current power brokers are challenged by factions that boycotted the last vote in 2005.
The latest American death Friday was not linked to combat, the military said in a statement. It provided no further details about the incident.
Iraqi troops have taken the lead in the latest crackdowns in Basra, Mosul, and the Baghdad district known as Sadr City, leaving US-led forces in a support role, where they are less exposed to attack. At least 27 Iraqi soldiers and 32 police officers were killed nationwide last month, according to government figures.
The number of attacks by Sunni insurgents has dropped significantly since the US troop buildup reached its height last June, and tens of thousands of Sunni tribesmen joined the fight against the extremists in their midst.
The ongoing offensive in the northern city of Mosul, which US officials have called the last urban stronghold of Al Qaeda in Iraq, has met with little resistance, suggesting that most fighters had fled the city or are lying low.
US commanders caution, however, that Sunni extremists remain capable of inflicting lethal attacks.
The government's crackdown in Basra in late March triggered an uprising by militiamen loyal to radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr that drew in US-led forces and threatened to unravel the recent security gains. More than 1,000 Iraqis were killed, many of them civilians, when the fighting spread to Sadr City and other Shi'ite sections of the capital.
The bloodshed in Sadr City has subsided since Shi'ite lawmakers loyal to Maliki signed a truce with Sadr's representatives May 12. But tensions between the main Shi'ite factions remain high, and sporadic clashes persist in other parts of the capital.
Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.