Iraq's civilian toll falls again in January

BAGHDAD, Jan 31 (Reuters) - Violent civilian deaths in Iraq fell again in January, figures showed on Thursday, and were significantly lower than a year ago after nationwide security crackdowns.

According to figures compiled by the interior, defence and health ministries, 466 civilians died violently during January, down 15 from the previous month.

The January 2008 figure was more than 76 percent lower than the 1,971 civilians killed in January 2007 when Iraq was on the brink of sectarian civil war.

However, U.S. military fatalities rose from last month.

So far 38 U.S. soldiers have been reported killed in January, compared with 23 in December. The figure is much lower than a year ago when 83 died in a savage insurgency and sectarian violence between majority Shi'ites and Sunni Muslims.

In all, 3,942 U.S. soldiers have been killed since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein.

The sharp decline in violence has been attributed to a "surge" of 30,000 extra U.S. soldiers, who became fully deployed last June, the growth of mainly Sunni Arab neighbourhood police units and the adoption of new counter-insurgency tactics.

The neighbourhood police, who number about 80,000 men paid a monthly wage of about $300, grew out of Sunni Arab tribes who turned against al Qaeda in western Anbar province last year because of the Sunni Islamist group's indiscriminate violence.

Another factor behind declining violence was a six-month ceasefire announced in August by the Mehdi Army militia of anti-American Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al Sadr. Attacks across Iraq have fallen 60 percent since June.

Thursday's data showed 55 policemen and 22 Iraqi soldiers had been killed, while 229 insurgents had been killed and 1,220 detained.

Northern Iraq remains a security concern because al Qaeda militants, ousted from their former strongholds in Anbar and from around Baghdad last year, have regrouped there.

Iraqi and U.S. forces are massing for an offensive which Iraq says will "cleanse" the northern city of Mosul of al Qaeda fighters, still the biggest threat to peace in Iraq according to General David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq.

Petraeus has also said the improvement in security could be reversed.

A roadside bomb in the Zayouna district of eastern Baghdad on Wednesday killed three policemen and three civilians. Three people were also killed and five wounded when a bomb in a parked car exploded in a Shi'ite district in northwestern Baghdad. (Editing by Robert Woodward)