BAGHDAD Violent civilian deaths in Iraq in December were down 75 percent from a year ago, new figures released on Monday showed as Iraqis partied in the streets of some parts of the capital Baghdad to bring in the New Year.
A year ago, the scenes of unrestrained revelry would have been unthinkable in a country racked by savage sectarian violence that by the most conservative estimates has killed tens of thousands of people and displaced some 4 million.
According to figures compiled by the interior, health and defense ministries, 481 civilians died violently in Iraq in December, a 75 percent drop from the 1,930 who were killed in December 2006, when the country was on the brink of civil war.
Since then, the U.S. military has adopted a new counter- insurgency strategy, Sunni Arab tribes have rebelled against al Qaeda, and anti-American Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has ordered his Mehdi Army militia to observe a six-month ceasefire.
Levels of violence are sharply down in most parts of Iraq, although the top U.S. military commander, General David Petraeus, warned at the weekend that the military gains were fragile and reversible without political reconciliation between the warring sects to cement them.
Despite the dramatic drop in violence in December, the figures released on Monday showed that more civilians died overall in 2007 (16,232) than in 2006 (12,360).
Some 1,300 policemen and 432 soldiers were also killed this year, along with 4,544 militants, according to the data. In 2006, 602 soldiers were killed and 1,231 police.
December is also one of the least deadly months of the war for U.S. soldiers in Iraq, with 21 reported deaths so far.
But, in a reminder that while security has improved in Iraq, it is still plagued by violence, an Iraqi army source said four Iraqi soldiers and 16 al Qaeda militants had been killed in clashes on Monday in the village of Hashimiya west of Baquba, a volatile city north of Baghdad.
A suicide car bomb also killed five children and six neighborhood patrol volunteers on the northern outskirts of Baghdad on Monday, an Interior Ministry source said.
The bomber struck a checkpoint manned by neighborhood patrol volunteers near a school in Tarmiya, north of the Iraqi capital.
The patrols, mainly of Sunni Arabs paid by U.S. forces to oppose al Qaeda militants, have often been struck by bombers in recent weeks, especially north of the capital where U.S. forces say militants regrouped after being pushed from other areas.
Petraeus said al Qaeda remained the biggest threat to Iraq's security and that his troops would continue to target the Sunni Islamist group in offensive operations in 2008.
For people partying in Karrada district in Baghdad on Monday night, 2008 offered the promise of peace after a year which saw sectarian violence stemmed if not entirely quelled. For the first time in years, people were celebrating New Year.
"We will say prayers thanking God that we are still alive and asking him for a better coming year, and for the situation to improve, to be more peaceful and secure," said Qais Mansour, a 70-year-old Catholic priest, earlier in the day.
"We wish the political parties will reach agreement next year that we are all human, to respect one another and to live in peace."
Despite the security gains, Iraq's main Shi'ite, Kurdish and Shi'ite political blocs have failed to agree on key laws seen by Washington as crucial to boosting reconciliation.
Parliament resumed sitting on Sunday after breaking for the Eid al-Adha religious feast but has so far failed to muster a quorum to begin discussing legislation such as a law easing restrictions on former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party holding public office.