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Iraqi deaths fell by 50% last month

US forces' toll lowest since August '06

BAGHDAD - The number of US soldiers and Iraqi civilians reported killed across the country last month fell to their lowest levels in more than a year, a sharp decrease in violent deaths that American military officials attribute in part to the thousands of additional soldiers who arrived this year.

The death toll for Iraqi civilians fell sharply in September, according to Iraqi government and US military figures. One count from Iraq's Health Ministry put the monthly death toll at 827 civilians, a 48 percent drop from the total in August, according to an official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to release the statistics.

The downward trend among victims of violence was mirrored by dropping fatalities among US soldiers. By month's end, at least 66 US soldiers were killed, the lowest monthly total since 65 died in August 2006, and about half the number who died during the deadliest month this year, according to icasualties.org, a website that tracks military deaths in Iraq.

The Associated Press reported that the US military toll for the month was 64, and that Iraqi civilian, military and police deaths totaled 988, 50 percent lower than the previous month.

US military officials expressed optimism yesterday about the declining death tolls, particularly because the reduction comes during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a time when violence has risen in past years. But they warned that insurgent groups such as Al Qaeda in Iraq remain lethal and are probably planning for a counteroffensive of violent attacks.

"And we have seen such an uptick in the number of attacks recently in the last few days, but it has not been either at the level of intensity or the severity or the numbers that we've had before," Rear Admiral Mark Fox, a US military spokesman, told reporters in Baghdad. "We think that they're still dangerous, but we also feel that we have been doing the kinds of operations that have kept Al Qaeda off balance."

Calculating civilian deaths in the war has always been imprecise. The US military uses a methodology that includes tallying deaths that soldiers encounter directly, plus reported deaths from Iraqi government sources that are not always verified. The anonymous and isolated nature of many killings, along with the Muslim custom of burying victims rapidly, means not all deaths are reported.

The Health Ministry statistics provided to The Washington Post, for example, rely on counts from Iraqi morgues, a measure that excluded bodies that families bury directly. To compound the confusion, different Iraqi officials within and among various government ministries have in the past disclosed conflicting figures. And independent studies and analyses have placed the fatality counts much higher than Iraqi government or US military tallies.

One US military official said yesterday that a total of 1,461 Iraqi civilians were killed or wounded in September, representing the lowest casualty count since early 2006.

Numbers alone cannot describe the level of danger, and the pervading sense of insecurity, that still exist in much of Iraq. Some US soldiers in Iraq have argued that sectarian cleansing in some Baghdad neighborhoods has progressed to the point that there are fewer opportunities for killing rivals. Many Iraqis still refuse to travel from their homes or immediate neighborhoods for fear of crossing into territory under the control of rival militias or insurgents. Thousands of residents each month are still driven from their homes and from the country, afraid for their lives.

In an interview yesterday, Tariq al-Hashimi, one of Iraq's two vice presidents, said that the detention of thousands of people this year during the troop buildup has created dire long-term problems. Mass arrests, and the prolonged detention of uncharged and sometimes innocent people, fuel the sectarian hatred that drives much of the killing, he said.

Yesterday, a car bomb exploded in a suicide attack just outside Mosul University in northern Iraq, killing a professor and wounding six other people, including four students, said Brigadier General Mohammed al-Wagaa, the deputy police chief in Nineveh province. A second car bomb did not cause any casualties, he said.

Also in Mosul, gunmen kidnapped the head of the Ibn Sina educational hospital, Hisham al-Qazaz, according to other doctors.

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