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U.S. sees its lowest Iraq death toll

If no additional losses are reported, the May number will be 19. At least 4,084 have died since the war began.

June 01, 2008|Alexandra Zavis | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — The U.S. military on Saturday announced the death of a Marine in Anbar province, as May ended with what could be the lowest monthly toll since American-led forces invaded five years ago.

If no additional deaths are reported, the U.S. military toll for the month will be 19, according to the independent website icasualties.org. The next-lowest toll was in February 2004, when 20 service members were killed. At least 4,084 U.S. personnel have died since the start of the war.

Two Georgian servicemen were also killed last month.

The number of Iraqi civilian deaths also fell last month, from 923 in April to 504, according to Health Ministry figures.

The drop in casualties comes at a time when American and Iraqi officials are claiming major gains against the Sunni Muslim militant group Al Qaeda in Iraq, and a truce has curbed fighting with Shiite extremists.

The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, said in Washington last month that violence had hit a four-year low and he would probably recommend further troop cuts after most of the additional 28,500 forces deployed last year leave by the end of July.

But the improved security trends have not been matched on the political front, leaving unresolved the simmering tensions between Iraq's major ethnic and religious groups, which could erupt again into violence.

Talks aimed at bringing members of the main Sunni Muslim political alliance back into the Cabinet collapsed last week over who would occupy one of the seats. Most Sunni representatives quit Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's government in August, accusing the country's majority Shiites and their ethnic Kurdish allies of refusing to share power.

U.S. officials hope that provincial elections scheduled for the fall will give Sunnis a bigger stake in the government. But the vote could also become a trigger for violence, as the current power brokers are challenged by factions that boycotted the last vote, in 2005.

The latest American death, on Friday, was not linked to combat, the military said in a statement. It provided no further details about the incident.

Iraqi troops have taken the lead in the latest crackdowns in Basra, Mosul and the Baghdad district known as Sadr City, leaving U.S.-led forces in a support role, where they are less exposed to attack. At least 27 Iraqi soldiers and 32 policemen were killed nationwide last month, according to government figures.

The number of attacks by Sunni insurgents has dropped significantly since the U.S. troop buildup reached its height last June, and tens of thousands of Sunni tribesmen joined the fight against the extremists in their midst.

The ongoing offensive in the northern city of Mosul, which U.S. officials have called the last urban stronghold of Al Qaeda in Iraq, has met little resistance, suggesting that most fighters had already fled the city or are lying low.

U.S. commanders caution, however, that Sunni extremists remain capable of inflicting lethal attacks.

Sheik Hikmat Ilgoud, mayor of the Anbar town of Hit, survived a suicide bombing Saturday that killed 10 people and injured 12, the Interior Ministry said. The assailant blew himself up at a police checkpoint minutes after the mayor's convoy left the site. Such attacks are a trademark of Al Qaeda in Iraq, a mostly homegrown group that U.S. commanders say is foreign-led.

The government's late-March crackdown in Basra triggered an uprising by militiamen loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr that drew in U.S.-led forces and threatened to unravel the recent security gains. More than 1,000 Iraqis were killed, many of them civilians, when the fighting spread to Sadr City and other Shiite areas of the capital.

The bloodshed in Sadr City has subsided since Shiite lawmakers loyal to Maliki signed a truce with Sadr's representatives May 12. But tensions between the main Shiite factions remain high, and sporadic clashes persist in other parts of the capital.

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alexandra.zavis@latimes.com

Times special correspondents in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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