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Ramadan violence falls sharply in Iraq

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Violence in Iraq during Ramadan has fallen by almost 40 percent from last year, the U.S. military said on Sunday, despite a warning from al Qaeda that it would increase attacks during the Muslim holy month.

Students hold hands as they arrive on the first day of school in Baghdad September 30, 2007. Violence in Iraq during Ramadan has fallen by almost 40 percent from last year, the U.S. military said on Sunday, despite a warning from al Qaeda that it would increase attacks during the Muslim holy month. REUTERS/Mohammed Ameen

U.S. military spokesman Rear Admiral Mark Fox said a “surge” of 30,000 extra troops into Iraq this year and the new tactic of moving soldiers into small combat outposts instead of “commuting to the war” from large bases had helped bring down violence.

“We are substantially below last year’s level. As a matter of fact, in comparison to this time last year, about 38 percent lower in terms of Ramadan violence levels,” he told a news conference, adding that that overall levels were still too high.

With evidence pointing to a drop in violence since the extra troops were deployed, the U.S. embassy in Iraq issued a strongly worded statement criticising a U.S. Senate resolution calling for separate Sunni Arab, Shi’ite and Kurdish federal regions.

“Attempts to partition or divide Iraq by intimidation, force or other means into three separate states would produce extraordinary suffering and bloodshed,” the embassy said.

“Our goal in Iraq remains ... a democratic, federal Iraq that can govern, defend, and sustain itself,” it said.

The U.S. Senate passed a non-binding resolution on Wednesday which called for “a federal system of government and ... federal regions”. It was rejected by the Iraqi government and other critics as an attempt to partition the country.

Iraq’s 2005 constitution allows for possible federal structures. The northern Kurdistan region has significant autonomy, although majority Shi’ites and minority Sunni Arabs oppose greater federalism as a step towards dividing Iraq.

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In northern Mosul, police said 11 hand-cuffed bodies, all showing signs of torture, were found dumped in one place. All had been shot. Another five bodies were found in Baghdad.

The U.S. military said its forces killed 20 suspected insurgents after a rocket-propelled grenade and small arms fire targeted a U.S. aircraft northwest of Baghdad on Saturday.

Al Qaeda said at the start of Ramadan, more than two weeks ago, that it would escalate attacks and would target tribal leaders who were cooperating with security forces.

Marine Brigadier-General Mark Gurganus, commander of U.S. ground troops in Anbar province in western Iraq, said there had been 76 attacks in the first week of Ramadan in his area of command, and 91 in the second week.

“One year ago, during the same week, we had 415 incidents. The 38 percent reduction across Iraq -- we enjoyed quite a bit sharper,” Gurganus said.

Anbar was once the most dangerous province in Iraq for Iraqis and U.S. troops but is now being hailed as one of Iraq’s few success stories after U.S. forces helped local Sunni Arab sheikhs organise their young men into tribal police units.

U.S. President George W. Bush cited the progress in Anbar as a validation of his strategy of sending more troops to Iraq, to buy time for politicians to make progress reconciling Shi’ites and Sunni Arabs, who were dominant under Saddam Hussein.

Bush told Congress that successes in the unpopular war would allow between 20,000 and 30,000 troops to be withdrawn by July.

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U.S. commanders have tied the withdrawal of their troops to the readiness of Iraqi security forces to assume responsibility.

Fox said logistics support remained the biggest hurdle for Iraqi security forces, while Gurganus said a lack of leadership also had to be addressed before they could take over in Anbar.

“You don’t just go out into the street and find an officer,” he said.

Fox said the reduction in attacks did not mean that Sunni Islamist al Qaeda had been “defanged”. Gurganus added: “One of the things that always concerns me is their constant desire to pull off the one spectacular attack.”

The “surge” of extra U.S. and Iraqi troops has also targeted Shi’ite militias, which Washington says are being trained and supplied by Shi’ite Iran.

The commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, General David Petraeus, was quoted by the Los Angeles Times on Sunday as saying Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki had secured a pledge from Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to prevent weapons flowing from Iran to Iraq.

Additional reporting by Dominic Evans in Baghdad Baghdad newsroom, editing by Ibon Villelabeitia