BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Fighting between Iraqi security forces and Shi’ite militiamen last month has driven civilian deaths in the country to their highest level in more than six months, government figures showed on Tuesday.
A total of 923 civilians were killed in March, up 31 percent from February and the deadliest month since August 2007, according to data compiled by Iraq’s interior, defense and health ministries and obtained by Reuters.
The figures will be a blow to the Iraqi government and the United States, which have pointed to reduced overall levels of violence in recent months as evidence that a major security offensive has made significant progress.
Hundreds of people were killed and many more wounded in last week’s fighting after Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ordered a crackdown on Shi’ite militiamen in the southern city of Basra. Many of the dead were civilians caught in the crossfire.
Basra was relatively calm for a second straight day on Tuesday after Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called his fighters off the streets on Sunday.
A Reuters reporter in Basra said more shops had opened for business and streets were filling up with residents and cars. But many schools and government offices remained closed.
The crackdown exposed a deep rift within Iraq’s Shi’ite majority — between the political parties in Maliki’s government and followers of the populist cleric Sadr.
Despite the sharp rise in casualties last month, the March figure was still much lower than the 1,861 civilians who died violently in the same month a year ago at a time when Iraq was on the verge of all-out civil war. A total of 1,358 civilians were wounded in March, compared with 2,700 a year ago.
Overall attacks have fallen since last June when 30,000 extra U.S. troops became fully deployed. Another key factor bringing down attacks was a unilateral ceasefire declared by Sadr last August.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Monday the recent violence in southern Iraq would not deter U.S. plans to withdraw 20,000 troops by July. U.S. commanders say they expect to have 140,000 soldiers in Iraq once the drawdown is complete.
The U.S. military commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, and U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker will give a much-anticipated status report on Iraq to Congress next week.
Petraeus is expected to recommend a pause in troop withdrawals to avoid losing the gains made in recent months.
Sadr ordered his Mehdi Army fighters off the streets after government authorities agreed to stop rounding up his followers and implement an amnesty to free prisoners.
Maliki on Tuesday reiterated his order to Iraqi security forces to stop their raids on Mehdi Army fighters and only arrest gunmen with a warrant.
But Sadr supporters said raids had continued.
“We have information about many operations targeting Sadr followers, especially in Basra,” said Nasir al-Isawi, a member of Sadr’s parliamentary bloc.
“This is very dangerous and it threatens the deal.”
He said he did not know how many were arrested in Basra on Monday, but 70 were taken by Iraqi security forces in the al-Hamza neighborhood in the southern Shi’ite city of Hilla.
Analysts warn that fighting could easily flare up again as various factions vie for political influence ahead of provincial elections expected to take place by October.
The government says the military operation in Basra last week was intended to impose law and order, but Sadr’s followers say it was an attempt to dilute their influence ahead of the polls.
The latest Iraqi data on casualties showed 102 policemen and 54 soldiers were killed in March, compared with 65 and 20 respectively in February. It showed 641 insurgents had been killed in March and 2,509 detained.