BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Fighting between security forces and Shi’ite militiamen last month has driven civilian deaths in Iraq to their highest level in more than six months, government figures showed on Tuesday.
Britain responded to renewed violence in the southern city of Basra by delaying plans to bring home 1,500 of its 4,000 troops in Iraq.
A total of 923 civilians were killed in March, up 31 percent from February and the deadliest month since August 2007, according to data compiled by Iraq’s interior, defense and health ministries and obtained by Reuters.
The figures are a blow to the Iraqi government and the United States, which have pointed to reduced overall levels of violence in recent months as evidence that a major security offensive has made significant progress.
Hundreds of people were killed and many more wounded in last week’s fighting after Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ordered a crackdown on Shi’ite militiamen in Basra. Many of the dead were civilians caught in the crossfire.
Basra was relatively calm for a second straight day on Tuesday after Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called his fighters off the streets on Sunday. A Reuters reporter in the city said more shops were open and people were out on the streets although many schools and government offices were still shut.
In Baghdad’s Sadr City, the slum of 2 million people that forms the cleric’s main stronghold in the capital and location of much of last week’s combat, the situation was tense but there were no reports of major clashes.
The Red Crescent said U.S. and Iraqi security forces prevented a convoy carrying food, blood and medicine supplies from entering the area due to the security situation.
Maliki declared the military operation a success: “After maintaining stability and security, the security plan succeeded in its goals in imposing the law in the province of Basra,” he said in a statement.
The prime minister, who had led the operation personally from Basra, returned to Baghdad on Tuesday, said Defense Ministry spokesman Major-General Mohammed al-Askari said.
Many experts say the crackdown backfired by exposing the army’s weakness and reinforcing Sadr’s support base. During the fighting, the defense minister acknowledged his troops were surprised by the ferocity of the resistance.
“The government misjudged the situation and Maliki has lost a lot,” said Iraqi political analyst Ghassan al-Atiya in London.
The crackdown exposed a rift within Iraq’s Shi’ite majority between the political parties in Maliki’s government and followers of the populist cleric Sadr.
Despite the sharp rise in casualties last month, the March figure was still much lower than the 1,861 civilians who died violently in the same month a year ago at a time when Iraq was on the verge of all-out civil war. A total of 1,358 civilians were wounded last month, compared with 2,700 a year ago.
The Iraqi data also showed 102 policemen and 54 soldiers were killed in March, compared with 65 and 20 respectively in February. It showed 641 insurgents had been killed in March and 2,509 detained.
Overall attacks have fallen since last June when 30,000 extra U.S. troops became fully deployed. Another factor bringing down attacks was a unilateral ceasefire declared by Sadr last August. Last week’s fighting had jeopardized that.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Monday the recent violence in southern Iraq would not affect U.S. plans to withdraw 20,000 troops by July. U.S. commanders expect to have 140,000 soldiers in Iraq once the drawdown is complete.
The U.S. military commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, and U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker will give a much-anticipated report on Iraq to Congress next week.
Petraeus is expected to recommend a pause in troop withdrawals to avoid losing the gains made in recent months.
Sadr ordered his Mehdi Army fighters off the streets after government authorities agreed to stop rounding up his followers and implement an amnesty to free prisoners. But Sadr supporters said Iraqi security forces continued to arrest them.
Additional reporting by Waleed Ibrahim and Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad and Aref Mohammed in Basra; Editing by Giles Elgood