Iraqi civilian deaths drop to lowest level of war

BAGHDAD Mon Nov 30, 2009 3:22pm EST

Iraqis row in boats in an open-air swimming pool in a park on Abu Nawas Street, during the Muslim festival of Eid-al-Adha, in Baghdad November 28, 2009. REUTERS/ Mohammed Ameen

Iraqis row in boats in an open-air swimming pool in a park on Abu Nawas Street, during the Muslim festival of Eid-al-Adha, in Baghdad November 28, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/ Mohammed Ameen

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The civilian death toll in Iraq fell to its lowest level in November since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion as bombings receded, defying predictions of a spike in violence before an election next year, officials said on Monday.

Eighty-eight civilians were killed this month in violence, health ministry data showed, the first time the monthly body count has dropped below 100.

"These statistics are the lowest since the invasion," said an Interior Ministry official, asking not to be identified.

The civilian death toll in Iraq has been gradually falling for two years as the sectarian warfare unleashed between once dominant Sunni Muslims and majority Shi'ites by the U.S. invasion began to subside.

Suspected Sunni Islamist insurgents such as al Qaeda and adherents of Saddam Hussein's outlawed Baath party are still capable of staging devastating attacks.

Two suicide truck bombs on August 19 killed 95 people at the foreign and finance ministries in Baghdad, and two similar bombings in the Iraqi capital on October 25 killed 155 people in the deadliest strike in two years.

The October bombings took that month's civilian body count to 343, compared to 125 in September -- the previous lowest monthly toll of the war.

But the steady drumbeat of bombings that rocked market places and bus stations in Baghdad and other cities on a daily basis just a year ago appears to be fading as the insurgents shift their focus away from reigniting sectarian bloodshed.

U.S. military officials say al Qaeda and other groups now appear to be trying to undermine faith in the authorities with spectacular attacks on what should be well-protected government buildings, ahead of the next parliamentary election.

No big attacks occurred in November, leading to the low death toll, but more are expected ahead of the vote, which appears likely to be delayed beyond its constitutional deadline of end-January due to political wrangling.

The number of U.S. military personnel killed in combat in November also remained low at three, according to website www.icasualties.org.

In October, two U.S. soldiers died as a result of hostile fire, a reflection of the fact that U.S. forces are spending much more time in their bases and far less out on patrol since withdrawing from Iraqi urban centres in June.

At least 100,000 Iraqis have been killed through violence in the more than 6-1/2 years since the invasion, according to www.iraqbodycount.org.

(Writing by Michael Christie; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

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