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Steep drop in civilian deaths reported in Iraq

Lowest figures since Baghdad security boost

BAGHDAD -- Iraqi civilian deaths dropped to their lowest level since the start of the Baghdad security operation, government figures showed yesterday, suggesting signs of progress in tamping down violence in the capital.

But American casualties are running high as US forces step up pressure on Sunni and Shi'ite extremists in and around Baghdad.

At least 1,227 Iraqi civilians were killed in June along with 190 police officers 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 police and 47 soldiers.

June's figures were the lowest monthly tally this year. In January, President Bush ordered nearly 30,000 soldiers, Marines, and Air Force personnel to Iraq in a major push to stabilize the capital so that Iraq's leaders can make 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 US military pressure on insurgents in Baghdad and the surrounding areas.

The commander of US forces in Baghdad, Major General 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 yesterday 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 US 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 Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Garver. But Iraqi officials hailed the decline as a sign that the security crackdown was working.

However, June ended the deadliest quarter for US troops in Iraq since the war began in March 2003 -- 330 deaths.

US officials say American losses are rising because the US military is taking the fight to the extremists, seeking to push Sunni and Shi'ite militants from strongholds in and around the capital where they have operated for years.

On June 15, US 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.

Also yesterday, the country's largest Sunni Arab political group, the Iraqi Islamic Party, said more than 350 people have been killed in western Baqubah, 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."

In other developments, a suicide bomber yesterday 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, US 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 police officers, an Iraqi officer in Fallujah said. US officials, however, said one police officer was killed and four injured.

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