The number of civilians killed in Iraq fell sharply in June to the lowest monthly total since a US-backed security clampdown was launched in February, Iraqi government figures showed on Sunday.The data, obtained from the ministries of interior, defence and health, showed 1,227 civilians died violently in June, a 36 perÂ cent drop from May.
US military officials said it was premature to draw conclusions about the effects of the crackdown, which is seen as a last ditch effort to avert full-scale sectarian civil war between majority Shiites and minority Sunni Arabs.
“We continue to be cautiously optimistic, we are still very early in this process,” said US military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Christopher Garver.
But while the civilian death toll fell, June was costly for US forces, with 101 soldiers and marines killed.
That made the April-June quarter the bloodiest since the US-led invasion in 2003, a grim milestone which partly reflects the fact that more American soldiers are on the streets of Baghdad and dangerous beltways around the capital.
Indeed, with US public opinion increasingly hostile to the war, President George W. Bush is under pressure from opposition Democrats and senior figures in his own Republican Party to show his war strategy is working after ordering 28,000 more troops to Iraq. There are now 157,000 US military personnel in Iraq.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari said he warned US government and congressional leaders during a recent visit to Washington that Iraq would disintegrate if American troops withdrew prematurely.
“I really did explain to them the dangers of just walking away from the situation, [saying] ‘this is not our war, we cannot reconcile the Iraqis’,” Zebari told Reuters.
“The country would disintegrate, literally, practically. Every group would go back to its community or to its sect or ethnicity and then we would really have a divided country without a central government to keep it together.”
Fewer big bombings
While US military officials say the number of attacks across Iraq has remained steady in recent months, there have been fewer casualties in the past few weeks from big car bombings that often cause a heavy loss of life.
One of the key aims of the crackdown is to dismantle car bomb networks operated by Sunni Islamist Al Qaeda in and around Baghdad and to protect vulnerable places such as outdoor markets with high concrete walls to keep bombers out.
The number of bodies found daily around Baghdad, victims of sectarian death squads, has also declined during the crackdown.
Police said they found 16 bodies on Saturday in the capital, compared with an average of 40 or 50 daily last year. However, on many days the average has been about 20-30.
The Iraqi data showed 222 Iraqi police and soldiers were also killed in June, slightly higher than the previous month. It also showed 416 insurgents and gunmen were killed in June and 2,262 were detained.
The core of the US military strategy is to flush gunmen from their strongholds, preventing them from returning with stepped-up security, and winning the trust and support of locals by improving basic services.
US efforts are also being aimed at curbing the smuggling of weapons from Iran.
The two old adversaries held rare talks in Baghdad in May to discuss Iraqi security issues and Zebari said he was pressing for another round.
“We felt that there is a common interest in pursuing these talks, in having a second meeting, but no date has been agreed yet. We are working on that. There would be a second round, I hope so,” Zebari said.
Washington accuses Iran of fomenting violence in Iraq.
Tehran blames the US-led invasion in 2003 for the bloodshed.