BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – The number of civilians killed in Iraq fell in June despite a few big bombings, keeping violence levels at around four-year lows, Iraqi government figures showed on Tuesday.
The statistics come at a time when the U.S. military is close to completing a drawdown of more than 20,000 combat troops that were sent to Iraq in early 2007 to pull the country back from the brink of all-out sectarian civil war.
Numbers from the Health Ministry showed 448 civilians were killed in June, from 505 in May. The May figure was down from 968 civilian deaths in April, a month when fighting spiralled between Shi’ite militias and security forces.
U.S. troop deaths in Iraq rose to 29 in June from 19 in May, according to the independent website icasualties.org, which tracks American casualty figures.
The May number was the lowest since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. In June last year, 101 U.S. troops were killed. The five-year-old war in Iraq has claimed the lives of more than 4,000 American soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqis.
Despite the improved security, U.S. generals have stressed the gains are both fragile and reversible. That was shown in March and April, when government offensives against Shi’ite militias sparked a surge in violence in the capital Baghdad and other cities.
In one of the deadliest attacks last month, a truck bomb killed 63 people in Baghdad on June 17. Those types of attacks, a regular occurrence in 2006 and in the first half of 2007, are now relatively rare.
U.S. officials credit the turnaround in security to President George W. Bush’s decision to send extra troops to Iraq, a rebellion by Sunni tribal leaders against al Qaeda, and a ceasefire by anti-American Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
The U.S. military said in May that violence was at a four-year low. That has allowed the military to keep withdrawing the additional forces Bush deployed last year.
The last of the five extra combat brigades sent to Iraq is expected to leave this month, reducing troop numbers to 140,000, a level roughly the same as when Bush ordered the buildup.
The level of American troop numbers is a major issue in the U.S. presidential election campaign.
Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has called for the removal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq within 16 months of taking office should he win the election in November.
Republican candidate Senator John McCain says the U.S. troop buildup has helped boost stability in Iraq. He has criticised Democrats’ promises for a quick withdrawal as “reckless”.
As a sign of the improved security, Iraq on Monday opened its giant oilfields to foreign firms.
The move to invite bids for the development of Iraq’s largest producing fields should mark the return of the oil majors, whose cash and expertise Iraq needs to restore its oil infrastructure that has been hard hit by sanctions and war.
Despite the security gains, Iraq has made uneven progress on political reconciliation. The main Sunni Arab bloc has yet to rejoin the Shi’ite-led government after quitting nearly a year ago and some lawmakers believe provincial elections scheduled for Oct. 1 will be delayed because of political wrangling.