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US says suicide bombings down

Cites success of operations with Iraqis

BAGHDAD -- Suicide bombings fell in November to their lowest level in seven months, the American military said yesterday, citing the success of US-Iraqi military operations against insurgent and foreign fighter sanctuaries near the Syrian border.

But the trend in Iraq has not resulted in less bloodshed: 85 US troops died during the month, one of the highest tolls since the invasion.

Nevertheless, Major General Rick Lynch, a coalition operations officer, warned that Al Qaeda in Iraq, led by Jordanian terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, is likely to step up attacks in the next two weeks to try to disrupt parliamentary elections Dec. 15.

Lynch told reporters that suicide bombings declined to 23 in November as US and Iraqi forces were overrunning insurgent strongholds in the Euphrates River valley west of the capital.

Communities along the river are believed used by foreign fighters, who slip into the country from Syria and travel down the river highway to Baghdad and other cities.

Lynch called suicide bombings the insurgents' ''weapon of choice" because they can inflict a high number of casualties while sacrificing only the attacker. Classic infantry ambushes draw withering American return fire, resulting in heavy insurgent losses.

''In the month of November: only 23 suicide attacks -- the lowest we've seen in the last seven months, the direct result of the effectiveness of our operations," Lynch said.

Car bombings -- parked along streets and highways and detonated remotely -- have declined from 130 in February to 68 in November, Lynch said.

However, suicide attacks have not consistently decreased over the past year. After more than 70 such attacks in May, the number fell in August by nearly half and then climbed to over 50 two months later.

And despite the decline over the past month, there has been no letup in the relentless toll of American deaths at a time of growing discontent in the United States over the Iraq war.

The US command said yesterday that four American service members were killed the day before, three of them from hostile action and the fourth in a traffic accident. The deaths raised the American fatality toll for November to at least 85.

That was down from the 96 American deaths suffered in October -- the fourth deadliest month since the war began in March 2003. But it was well above the 49 deaths in September. US monthly death tolls have hit 80 or above during 10 of the 33 months of the war.

There also has been no decline over the past six months in the Iraqi death toll from suicide attacks, according to an Associated Press tally. In November, at least 290 Iraqis were killed in such attacks, more than double the figure from the previous month. The count shows the Iraqi toll ranging from at least 69 deaths in August to at least 356 in September.

November's suicide attacks included near-simultaneous bombings at two Shi'ite mosques in Khanaqin, killing 76; a car bombing at a Shi'ite funeral north of the capital, killing 36; and a car bombing near a hospital in Mahmoudiya, killing 30.

In Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad, the US military played down reports by residents and police of widespread attacks yesterday against American and Iraqi installations in the city. The military said only one rocket-propelled grenade was fired at an observation post, causing no casualties.

Police Lieutenant Mohammed al-Obaidi said at least four mortar rounds fell near the US base on the city's eastern edge.

Ramadi is the capital of Anbar province, a Sunni Arab stronghold, where clashes between insurgents and US and Iraqi troops have left hundreds of people dead over the past two years. US and Iraqi troops launched a joint operation near Ramadi on Wednesday.

Also yesterday, the top official for human rights in the Interior Ministry was dismissed in connection with an inquiry into allegations of torture by government security forces.

Nouri al-Nouri, the ministry's chief inspector for corruption cases and human rights violations, was fired on the order of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, an official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media.

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