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Iraqi civilian death toll drops to year’s lowest, officials say

Times Staff Writer

Monthly civilian casualties in Iraq dipped in June to the lowest level this year, according to the Iraqi government, but it was not immediately clear how accurate the statistics were or whether they were related to the increased presence of U.S. troops.

The figures released by the Iraqi ministries of health, defense and interior showed 1,227 Iraqi civilians killed in June, compared with 1,949 in May and 1,646 in February, when the first of 28,500 added U.S. troops arrived.

More Iraqi security force members were killed in June -- 221 compared with 174 in May. But the number of militants killed also increased, according to the government, to 416 in June from 297 in May.

In the last three months, 331 U.S. troops have died, the deadliest quarter for U.S. forces in Iraq since the invasion in March 2003, according to icasualties.org, which tracks military casualties. Two soldiers were killed Sunday in separate attacks in Baghdad, the U.S. military said today. A total of 3,580 U.S. troops have died since the 2003 invasion, according to the website.

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Experts often caution that Iraq’s civilian death tolls are inexact and probably underestimated because of unreported deaths in the hinterlands and delays before some mass graves are discovered. Officials said one found over the weekend outside Fallouja contained 35 to 40 bodies.

June’s numbers also would be skewed by the four-day curfew imposed on Baghdad after the June 13 bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, which banned all vehicle traffic and kept most people off the streets.

U.S. military officials, meanwhile, said it was too soon to tell whether the American troop increase and a recent wave of offensives had contributed to the decline in civilian casualties. The offensives, which began about two weeks ago, have targeted insurgent havens in Baqubah, northeast of Baghdad, and on the outskirts of the capital.

“We are not yet sure whether our operations are the cause of the decline. We are looking at that very carefully,” said Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, a military spokesman in Baghdad.

Garver said the military’s civilian casualty counts supported the Iraqi government’s figures and that U.S. officials would track civilian deaths through the summer.

“The number of civilians that have been killed by vehicle-borne bombs and improvised explosive devices on the road is still way too high,” Garver said, “and we are working to eliminate those car bomb factories, eliminate those suicide bombers that are causing such horrific damage throughout the country.

“We are glad to see the numbers go down and are cautiously optimistic our operations are heading in the right direction,” he added.

Meanwhile, explosions Sunday at police checkpoints in Iraq’s Al Anbar province west of the capital reportedly resulted in the deaths of seven Iraqi policemen, although the U.S. military disputed the number. Scattered violence across Iraq caused at least 15 additional deaths.

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In Fallouja, witnesses said a suicide bomber drove an explosives-laden truck toward an Iraqi police checkpoint and detonated it while a group of men fired three grenades in the same direction. The attack killed at least two officers and injured four others, the witnesses said. The U.S. military said one officer was killed and four injured.

In nearby Ramadi, police said a suicide bomber rushed their checkpoint on a bridge over the Euphrates River north of the city, damaging a large section of it, killing five officers and injuring six others and five civilians. But U.S. military officials said two civilians were injured and no officers were killed.

Earlier in the day, masked men shot three people sitting in front of shops in Ramadi, police said. One suspect was arrested, but the others escaped.

In recent months, the U.S. military has touted its advances in securing long-restive Al Anbar, once a stronghold of foreign Islamist militants.

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U.S. military leaders increasingly are relying on partnerships with local tribal leaders, Sunni Muslim sheiks who say they want to rid the area of fighters with ties to Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Garver, the U.S. military spokesman, said Sunday’s attacks in Ramadi underscored the need for military offensives to root out bomb-making facilities elsewhere in Iraq. He said the killings didn’t indicate that Al Anbar was slipping back into chaos or that the military should change its approach to securing the area.

“It doesn’t particularly indict the security situation in Anbar,” he said. “It is better. It’s not safe. It’s not incident-free.”

In Baghdad, there were explosions and shootings in several neighborhoods, the most deadly attacks striking a crowded market area.

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Gunmen traded fire with Iraqi police commandos in the Sadiya vegetable market, killing two officers and injuring one.

Later, Iraqi police at a checkpoint near the market found an abandoned car with a kidnapping victim tied to the wheel who told them the car was rigged with explosives. Police rescued the man before the car exploded, killing one person and injuring three others.

Another car bomb explosion, at nearby Jadriya bridge, resulted in five deaths, police said.

Elsewhere in south Baghdad, gunmen opened fire in the Dora neighborhood, killing two and injuring one.

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In the east Baghdad neighborhood of Zayuna, two Iraqi police were killed and six people injured, including three officers, in a roadside bombing followed by a drive-by shooting.

Other roadside bombs in western and eastern Baghdad injured seven people.

Police found 14 bodies shot and dumped in the capital Sunday, all men ages 20 to 40.

In the northern city of Kirkuk, an Iraqi soldier assigned to guard local oil facilities and a local lawyer were fatally shot by unknown attackers, police said.

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In the nearby city of Hawija, a man trying to plant a roadside bomb at a market was killed when the bomb exploded prematurely without injuring anyone else, police said.

In Balad, about 50 miles north of Baghdad, a Sunni tribal chief was kidnapped by gunmen Sunday, police said.

In the southern city of Basra, police found the bullet-riddled body of Iraqi Col. Nassir Ali, former head of the city’s prisons, who was kidnapped a day earlier.

Iraqi officials announced Sunday that they had negotiated a visit between Iranian diplomats and five Iranian consular officials detained by U.S. forces in northern Iraq in January.

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“Our goal is to have them released as soon as possible,” Iraqi Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs Labeed Abbawi said.

The talks are part of an Iraqi effort to persuade U.S. and Iranian officials to agree to a new round of meetings, Abbawi said.

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

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Times staff writers Raheem Salman, Saif Hameed, Saif Rasheed and Wail Alhafith, and correspondents in Baghdad, Basra, Fallouja, Kirkuk, Taji and Ramadi contributed to this report.


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