Friday, May 30, 2008

us troop deaths near lowest level in five years

U.S. troop deaths in May near lowest level of war By Charles Levinson, USA TODAY Newspaper BAGHDAD — This May has been one of the least violent months of the Iraq war. The relative calm follows a cease-fire agreement by Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his militia in the face of steady pressure from U.S. and Iraqi forces. ighteen U.S. servicemembers have been identified as having died in Iraq so far in May, according to the Pentagon. To date, the least deadly month of the five-year war was February 2004, when 21 U.S. troops were killed in a 29-day period. The number of wounded also has fallen. Overall, militant attacks in Iraq have dropped to levels not seen since spring 2004, U.S. military spokesman Rear Adm. Patrick Driscoll said this week. Attacks are down 70% since President Bush ordered a U.S. troop increase, or "surge," early last year. l-Sadr agreed to a truce earlier this month after two months of clashes with U.S.-backed Iraqi security forces. The fighting followed a decision by the Iraqi government to rein in al-Sadr's Mahdi Army and other Shiite militant groups. Iraqi forces have also intensified their offensive against Sunni militants, including al-Qaeda, in the northern city of Mosul. We're seeing progress because we're getting more capability out of the Iraqi security forces," said Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin III, the number two U.S. commander in Iraq.The deal with al-Sadr could unravel at any time. His followers have issued statements on an almost daily basis threatening to resume fighting as they accuse the government of breaking promises. l-Qaeda militants have proven difficult to drive out of Mosul, their biggest remaining urban stronghold. A suicide bomber in Sinjar, 75 miles west of Mosul, killed 16 Iraqis crowded around a police recruiting station Thursday, the Associated Press reported. The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, who has been guarded in making proclamations of success, said last week that al-Qaeda in Iraq has "never been closer to defeat than they are now." Iraqi President Jalal Talabani also has sounded a surprisingly upbeat tone. Talabani criticized Iraqi Army Chief of Staff Babakir Zebari for saying his forces would not be ready to handle security on their own for four years. Instead, Talabani predicted last week that Iraqi forces would be able to maintain control of the country by year's end. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told a United Nations conference in Sweden on Thursday that "Iraq has achieved major success in the battle against terrorism."The U.S. death toll so far in May marks a dramatic decline from 126 deaths in May 2007, when U.S. forces were battling for control of Baghdad in one of the deadliest months of the war. Injuries among U.S. troops also are at their lowest level this year. Just 31 Americans were hurt in combat last week, with half returning to duty within three days, the Pentagon said. That's down from a recent peak of 130 in a single week in March, at the height of the fighting with Shiite militants. Iraqi police, soldiers and civilians are benefiting from the lull in violence. Seventy-eight people died in bombings across Iraq in April, the lowest level since November 2004, when 75 died, according to the Brookings Institution, a Washington think-tank that tracks the data. After five grim years, however, Iraqis are cautiously optimistic. "The situation is better now, but we still have fears," Ayad Chathem Hanid, 33, a bank teller, said while shopping with his wife Thursday on Baghdad's Palestine Street. "We don't know if the situation is going to blow up again or not."

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