Iraq deaths up 15 percent despite surge
Yahoo News/AFP
by Salam Faraj
April 1, 2007

BAGHDAD (AFP) - The monthly death toll in Iraq rose 15 percent in March, government figures revealed Sunday, as insurgents and sectarian militias continue to defy a military crackdown in Baghdad.

Half the 30,000 troop reinforcements promised by President George W. Bush to support the huge security operation have now deployed to Iraq, the US military confirmed.

At least 2,078 Iraqi civilians, policemen and soldiers died nationwide last month, 272 more than in February, and grim news for the US-backed crackdown billed as a last chance to wrest back control of Baghdad.

But Iraqi President Jalal Talabani still hailed progress in stemming the activities of the Mahdi Army militia of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, regarded by the US military as the most dangerous player in sectarian violence.

"The Mahdi Army seems to be following the orders of brother Moqtada Sadr and there is no action on its part. This is a good gesture and there are no (Sunni Arab) complaints against them," Talabani told reporters on Saturday.

The Americans say Sadr fled to Iran in self-imposed exile in January, just weeks before the much-vaunted US-Iraqi security operation began.

He has not been seen in public in either Iran or Iraq since the crackdown started on February 14. Nor has he appeared at Friday prayers at his local mosque to deliver one of his inflammatory sermons since last October 24.

The US military maintains that the number of execution-style killings, of the sort associated with his militia, has fallen in Baghdad during the crackdown, while the car bombings favoured by Sunni insurgents have continued.

Middle East analyst Joost Hiltermann of Brussels-based think-tank, the International Crisis Group, told AFP the militia was deliberately "lying low".

"This is in the interest of the Mahdi Army. The Mahdi Army, realising that in the longer term the Americans will leave and they will prevail, is very happy if the United States go after the (Sunni) insurgents," he said.

Detailed statistics collected by the defence, interior and health ministries show a significant increase in Iraqi civilian, army and police deaths in March, when more than 80 US military deaths were also recorded.

An average of three more people died each day last month -- 67 compared with 64 in February.

As proof that civilians are always the main casualty of war, 1,869 Iraqi bystanders died last month compared with 1,646 in February, far more than the losses of the Iraqi and US security forces combined.

In March, 165 Iraqi policemen were killed as against 131 the previous month, while 44 Iraqi soldiers died compared with 29 in February.

The US military also lost 87 personnel in March. A further five dead on Sunday, four of them in action, brought US losses since the 2003 invasion to 3,250, according to an AFP tally based on Pentagon figures.

US military losses for March were nearly double those of the Iraqi army, despite Washington's claim that Iraqi forces are leading the security crackdown in Baghdad.

US military spokesman Rear Admiral Mark Fox told reporters that half of the reinforcements planned under the administration's troop surge policy had now deployed to Iraq.

"About half of US troop reinforcements are currently in place with the remainder expected to be in place by early June," he said.

The remaining troops are either "in or approaching Kuwait", the main rear-base for US operations in neighbouring Iraq, he added.

Despite the crackdown in Baghdad, a leading Sunni Arab member of parliament was the target of an assassination attempt that wounded two of his bodyguards on Sunday.

The attackers detonated a roadside bomb as the convoy of Omar Abdul Sattar passed by near the office of the Iraqi Islamic Party to which he belongs.

He was the second Sunni leader attacked in less than 10 days. On March 24, Deputy Prime Minister Salam al-Zubayi was wounded in a double bomb attack outside his home.

Five more people, including three former members of Saddam Hussein's now outlawed Baath party, were killed in other attacks on Sunday, while the British military said that one of its soldiers was wounded by "small arms fire" in the main southern city of Basra.

Original Text