US troop deaths in Iraq at wartime low
Monday, 02 June 2008

Nineteen US soldiers were killed in Iraq in May, the US military said on Sunday, the lowest monthly death toll since US forces invaded to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003, reports Reuters.

The number of Iraqi civilians killed in the same month plunged to 505 after reaching a seven-month high of 968 in April, figures obtained by Reuters from Iraq's interior, defense and health ministries showed.

The US military says violence in Iraq is at a four-year low following crackdowns by US and Iraqi forces on Shia militias in southern Basra and Baghdad and on al Qaeda in the northern city of Mosul, its last major urban stronghold.

But a suicide bombing in the town of Hit in western Anbar province on Saturday that killed the local police chief underscored the fragility of Iraq's security.

Police said a suicide bomber blew himself up at a checkpoint, killing police chief Lieutenant-Colonel Khalil Ibrahim al-Jazzaa, nine other policemen and three civilians.

"The man, who was wearing a suicide vest, asked to meet the police chief to talk about a problem. When the policemen stopped him to check him, the bomber blew himself up," said Major Uday al-Dulaimi, a police officer in Hit.

In Iraq's more stable south, Australia, one of the United States' staunchest allies, began pulling out 500 combat troops from Dhi Qar province, fulfilling a pledge by Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to withdraw all troops this year.

The website, which tracks US fatalities in Iraq, said 19 US soldiers died in May. US troop deaths reached a seven-month high in April when 52 were killed.

A US military spokesman confirmed the figure, which may still rise as it sometimes takes the US Department of Defense a few days to confirm reported deaths. The previous lowest casualty toll was in February 2004, when 21 soldiers died.


The May toll starkly illustrates how the security situation has improved in the past 12 months. In May 2007, 126 US soldiers were killed amid a spasm of sectarian violence that threatened to push Iraq into the abyss of all-out civil war.

US officials credit the turnaround in security to President George W. Bush's decision to send 30,000 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.

But US commander General David Petraeus has repeatedly stressed that the security gains are fragile and reversible. That was shown in March, when an Iraqi government offensive against Sadr's supporters in Basra unleashed a wave of violence.

Under truces agreed with Sadr's supporters, Iraqi government troops have now occupied the cleric's main strongholds in Basra and in the capital. The government says al Qaeda is on the run after being forced out of Mosul.

The five-year-old Iraq war, which polls show is unpopular among most Americans, is a major issue in the US presidential election in November.

Republican candidate John McCain has promised to keep troops in Iraq until the war is won, while Barack Obama, who has nearly won the Democratic nomination over rival Hillary Clinton, says he will pull out the troops within 16 months of taking office.

Australian Prime Minister Rudd made a similar promise when he was campaigning for election last year, and on Sunday, Iraqi and British military officials said Australian troops were pulling out from their base in the Iraqi city of Nassiriya.

The Australian troops, whose main role has been to train and support Iraqi forces in the province, will be replaced by US forces, a spokesman for the provincial governor said.

Australia's military chief said in February that Australia would leave behind two maritime surveillance aircraft and a warship helping patrol Iraq's oil platforms in the Gulf, as well as a small force of security and headquarters liaison troops.

The withdrawal of the Australians leaves the United States with only two other major coalition partners in Iraq -- Britain, which has about 4,000 British soldiers in Basra and Georgia which has about 2,000 deployed in other provinces.

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