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US says fewer civilians are dying at checkpoints

BAGHDAD -- The number of Iraqi civilian deaths at American checkpoints and in encounters with US convoys has fallen sharply, from as many as eight a week a year ago to one a week last month, the US military reported yesterday.

Last week was the least deadly since the military began keeping records in July, with no Iraqi civilians killed despite 50 ``escalation of force" events at US-controlled roadblocks and with convoys, Lieutenant Colonel Michelle Martin-Hing said.

``It's a combination of different things," Martin-Hing said. ``We've begun a concerted effort to educate the local people. In March, we began a campaign about proper procedures when approaching a checkpoint or convoy.

``Plus there's been a standardization of markings at all checkpoints, beginning with warning signs at 300 yards," she said, meaning all checkpoints throughout the country are the same, whether they are manned by Iraqi or American-led forces.

The first sign at 300 yards warns drivers they are approaching a checkpoint, and periodic signs repeat the warning the rest of the way. US military convoys also display warning signs, in Arabic and English, telling drivers to keep 300 yards away or risk being shot.

The decrease in Iraqi civilian deaths involving checkpoints and convoys is occurring at a time of controversy for the US military over other civilian deaths: Seven Marines and a sailor are charged with murder in the killing of an Iraqi man, and other Marines are suspected in the killing of 24 civilians in the western Iraqi city of Haditha in November.

Martin-Hing acknowledged that the decrease in civilian deaths could partly be explained by the decreasing numbers of US forces actively working checkpoints and fewer American troop convoys on the road .

The AP's figures show that 6,441 Iraqi civilians have been killed since July 1 .

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