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By Dean Yates
BAGHDAD, Nov 7 (Reuters) - A reduction in violence in Baghdad over the past few months represents a sustainable trend that will allow fewer U.S. troops to protect the Iraqi capital, a top American general said on Wednesday.
Major-General Joseph Fil, commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad, said al Qaeda in Iraq no longer had a foothold in any part of the city of 7 million people. The group is blamed for most big car bombings that have killed thousands.
Death squad killings in Baghdad were also down 80 percent from their peak while roadside bombings had fallen 70 percent, Fil told foreign reporters without giving specific timeframes.
"I think there is going to come a day when certainly we will need less coalition troops in Baghdad," Fil said.
Asked when that would be, he said: "Already we are at a point where we'll see that as the surge forces depart the city, we'll see a natural decline in numbers and I'm very comfortable where that comes to, with that gradual attrition of forces."
U.S. President George W. Bush sent an extra 30,000 troops to Iraq early this year in a last-ditch attempt to halt Iraq's slide into sectarian civil war and to give the country's feuding politicians "breathing space" to reconcile.
Most of the additional troops were deployed in and around Baghdad. Some of those units will leave the city over the coming months under a plan endorsed by Bush in September that will see U.S. troop levels in Iraq fall 20,000-30,000 by the middle of next year from around the current number of 170,000.
Fil said the drops in violence in Baghdad were sustainable.
"I do think it's sustainable and that's because first of all we're working with Iraqi forces now in really almost every corner of the city," he said.
"But I also will say Baghdad is a dangerous place and al Qaeda, although on the ropes, is not finished by any means and they will come back swinging if they are allowed to."
IRAQI FORCES IMPROVING
He said levels of violence were falling every month following a spike in June.
But while fewer coalition troops would be required, more Iraqi security forces would be needed to fill any gaps, he said.
He said the Iraqi security forces had become "much, much more effective", while volunteers who patrolled their own neighbourhoods in coordination with the Iraqi security forces had had a positive impact.
Another factor behind improved security in Baghdad has been an order from Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr freezing the activities of his feared Mehdi Army militia. Fil said most of the Mehdi Army in Baghdad was honouring the order.
Fil rejected suggestions Baghdad had become totally segregated into Sunni and Shi'ite enclaves, a factor some cite as a reason for the reduction in sectarian violence.
"There are parts of the city certainly that are segregated, but there are many parts that are integrated and where Sunni, Shias and even Christians are getting along very well," he said.
Fil said one thing he had noticed was that ordinary Iraqis he met now no longer hounded him about security. He said their focus was on electricity, water and jobs.
(Editing by Samia Nakhoul)