Archive for Sunday, August 26, 2007

Violence down from peak but still high

August 26, 2007

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Shiite pilgrims walk outside the Imam Abbas shrine in the holy city of Karbala, 50 miles south of Baghdad, on Saturday. The city of Karbala is preparing for a pilgrimage when hundreds of thousands of Shiite pilgrims will come to commemorate the anniversary of the birth of their 12th Imam Mahdi on Tuesday.

Shiite pilgrims walk outside the Imam Abbas shrine in the holy city of Karbala, 50 miles south of Baghdad, on Saturday. The city of Karbala is preparing for a pilgrimage when hundreds of thousands of Shiite pilgrims will come to commemorate the anniversary of the birth of their 12th Imam Mahdi on Tuesday.

— This year's U.S. troop buildup has succeeded in bringing violence in Baghdad down from peak levels, but the death toll from sectarian attacks around the country is running nearly double the pace from a year ago.

Some of the recent bloodshed appears the result of militant fighters drifting into parts of northern Iraq, where they have fled after U.S.-led offensives. Baghdad, however, still accounts for slightly more than half of all war-related killings - the same percentage as a year ago, according to figures compiled by The Associated Press.

The tallies and trends offer a sobering snapshot after an additional 30,000 U.S. troops began campaigns in February to regain control of the Baghdad area. It also highlights one of the major themes expected in next month's Iraq progress report to Congress: some military headway, but extremist factions are far from broken.

In street-level terms, it means life for average Iraqis appears to be even more perilous and unpredictable.

The AP tracking includes Iraqi civilians, government officials, police and security forces killed in attacks such as gunfights and bombings, which are frequently blamed on Sunni suicide strikes. It also includes execution-style killings - largely the work of Shiite death squads.

The figures are considered a minimum based on AP reporting. The actual numbers are likely higher, as many killings go unreported or uncounted. Insurgent deaths are not a part of the Iraqi count.

The findings include:

¢ Iraq is suffering about double the number of war-related deaths throughout the country compared with last year - an average daily toll of 33 in 2006, and 62 so far this year.

¢ Nearly 1,000 more people have been killed in violence across Iraq in the first eight months of this year than in all of 2006. So far this year, about 14,800 people have died in war-related attacks and sectarian murders. AP reporting accounted for 13,811 deaths in 2006. The United Nations and other sources placed the 2006 toll far higher.

¢ Baghdad has gone from representing 76 percent of all civilian and police war-related deaths in Iraq in January to 52 percent in July, bringing it back to the same spot it was roughly a year ago.

¢ According to the Iraqi Red Crescent Organization, the number of displaced Iraqis has more than doubled since the start of the year, from 447,337 on Jan. 1 to 1.14 million on July 31.

However, Brig. Gen. Richard Sherlock, deputy director for operational planning for the Pentagon's Joint Chiefs of Staff, said violence in Iraq "has continued to decline and is at the lowest level since June 2006."

He offered no statistics to back his claim, but in a briefing with reporters at the Pentagon on Friday he warned insurgents might try intensify attacks in Iraq to coincide with three milestones: the sixth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S., the beginning of Ramadan and the report to Congress.

The U.S. military did not get all the additional American forces into Iraq until June 15, so it would be premature to draw a final statistical picture of the effect of the added troops.

But initial calculations validate fears that the Baghdad crackdown would push militants into districts north of the capital, including Diyala province where U.S. force and Iraqi soldiers have conducted major operation to clear its main city, Baqouba, of al-Qaida in Iraq fighters.

In July, the AP figures show 35 percent of all war-related killings occurred in northern provinces. The figure one year ago was 22 percent.

The final death count for August also will likely be further oriented to the north after the savage Aug. 14 attack by suspected al-Qaida truck bombers near the Syrian border in Ninevah province. At least 500 villagers from the Yazidi sect were killed in the deadliest civilian attack of the war.

In the first months of this year, many extremists fled to Baghdad and regions to the north after Sunni tribesmen in Anbar, the sprawling desert province west of the capital, turned on their erstwhile al-Qaida allies.

Anthony Cordesman, an Iraq expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said many militants are trying to hang onto footholds in central Iraq.

"Most of the force shifts are still in the Baghdad ring and Diyala," he said in a recent interview, predicting more spectacular attacks in the days leading to next month's report to Congress by U.S. commander Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker.

"Will it lead to more bloody attacks as they try to exploit the American political debate? Yes."

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