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Iraqi civilian deaths rise

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Civilian deaths from violence in Iraq rose in August, with 1,773 people killed, government data showed on Saturday, just days before the U.S. Congress gets a slew of reports on President George W. Bush’s war strategy.

The civilian death toll was up 7 percent from 1,653 people killed in July, according to figures from various ministries.

Nearly a quarter of the August total comprised 411 people killed in massive truck bombings against the minority Yazidi community in northern Iraq on August 14.

Without the Yazidi attack, the death toll would still be higher than the June number of 1,227, which had been the lowest monthly total since a U.S.-backed crackdown began in February.

The figures showed 87 Iraqi security forces were killed in August, a big drop from the previous month when 224 were killed.

Bush, under pressure from opposition Democrats and some senior Republicans to begin pulling U.S. troops from Iraq, urged Congress on Friday to wait for the assessments on Iraq’s security and political situation before making any judgments.

“The stakes in Iraq are too high and the consequences too grave for our security here at home to allow politics to harm the mission of our men and women in uniform,” Bush said in a statement after visiting military officials at the Pentagon.

The U.S. military says sectarian attacks have fallen since 30,000 more American troops deployed under Bush’s plan to give Iraqi leaders “breathing space” to foster reconciliation between warring Shi’ite and Sunni Arabs.

The U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, told an Australian newspaper in an interview this week there had been a 75 percent fall in religious and ethnic killing since last year.

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But while some security gains have been achieved, no key laws aimed at healing deep sectarian divisions have been passed, and Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s cabinet has been hit by the withdrawal of nearly half his ministers.

CRUCIAL ASSESSMENT

An assessment of the “surge” of troops along with Iraq’s political situation will be the focus of a series of pivotal reports to the U.S. Congress in the coming two weeks that could prompt a shift in Washington’s war policy.

The most crucial will be an assessment from Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker who will testify on September 10.

The White House is required to submit its own report by September 15.

That report is likely to refer to a decision by Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to freeze the activities of his feared Mehdi Army militia.

The U.S. military on Saturday welcomed the move and said it hoped security forces could now focus more on fighting Sunni Islamist al Qaeda.

The anti-American cleric on Wednesday ordered his Mehdi Army to suspend armed action for up to six months after dozens of people were killed during gunbattles involving the militia at a Shi’ite pilgrimage in the holy Shi’ite city of Kerbala.

U.S. President George W. Bush speaks in the press briefing room of the White House, August 31, 2007. Bush, facing Democratic pressure to begin pulling U.S. troops from Iraq, urged Congress on Friday to wait for a crucial assessment of his strategy before making any judgments about the war. REUTERS/Larry Downing

“Moqtada al-Sadr’s declaration holds the potential to reduce criminal activity and help reunite Iraqis separated by ethno-sectarian violence and fear,” the U.S. military said in a statement, its first detailed comment on the suspension order.

A senior Sadr aide said on Thursday the order to stop armed action might only last a week if American and Iraqi forces did not stop detaining the fiery cleric’s followers.

Residents in Sadr’s Baghdad stronghold of Sadr City said U.S. forces raided the area early on Saturday.

The U.S. military said it had detained eight suspected “special groups terrorists” -- usually understood to be a reference to rogue Mehdi Army militiamen with links to Iran -- during pre-dawn operations in the capital.

Sadr’s aides have said the suspension order was designed to allow Sadr to weed out rogue elements from the militia.

Additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria in Washington

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