- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 1, 2009

BAGHDAD (AP) — At least 447 Iraqi civilians were killed in June, double the toll from the previous month, according to an Associated Press tally, as insurgents took aim at crowded areas to maximize the number of casualties.

The spike in violence reflects the stiff challenges facing Iraqi security forces following the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from urban areas this week. But the numbers are still far lower than previous years, and the bombings by suspected Sunni extremists are not triggering the type of retaliatory attacks from Shiite militias that nearly led to civil war in 2006-2007.

The number of American troop deaths, meanwhile, dropped to 15 in June after an eight-month high of 25 in May. Four U.S. soldiers were killed Monday — the last day of regular combat operations in the cities.

The high Iraqi toll was fueled by several huge bombings over the past 10 days, including the deadliest blast this year in a Shiite town near Kirkuk in northern Iraq. At least 82 people were killed in the June 20 attack.

That and most of the other bombings targeted market districts, mosques or other public areas to avoid detection and kill as many people as possible.

Nobody claimed responsibility for the attacks, but car bombings and suicide attacks bear the signature of al-Qaida in Iraq and other Sunni insurgent groups.

“The attacks show al-Qaida will now go after the softest of soft spots just to kill innocent civilians in order for them to try and ignite sectarian violence,” Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said Tuesday.

But he was optimistic that the retaliatory violence of the past has not re-emerged.

June was the deadliest month for Iraqis this year excluding April, when the deaths of 82 Iranian pilgrims in a bombing pushed the toll to 451, an AP count showed. There were 225 Iraqis killed in May.

Overall violence remains at lower levels than past years after a U.S. troop buildup in 2007, a Sunni revolt against al-Qaida in Iraq and a Shiite militia cease-fire. But Iraqis continue to face dangers on a daily basis.

In the first six months of this year, war-related violence killed at least 1,902 Iraqis, compared with 4,809 killed in the first six months of 2008, according to the AP tally.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has sought to capitalize on the security gains with an eye toward parliamentary elections in January but says more violence can be expected in the days following the Tuesday’s formal withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from urban areas.

Politicians from other factions also supported the U.S. pullback despite continued violence, pointing out the Americans will still be on bases outside the cities and poised to help if requested by the Iraqis.

Many also said the Shiite-led government needs to take advantage of the hopefulness generated by the move to push forward political reforms and bring together Iraq’s factions.

“I think the Iraqi people are happy because they have suffered a lot of humiliation and killing by U.S. soldiers who were operating inside cities,” Kurdish politician Mahmoud Othman said. “But if the political rifts continue, security problems will increase and the U.S. soldiers will again be needed on the streets of Iraqi cities.”

Anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose followers have been blamed for some of Iraq’s worst violence, said the pullback left him “filled with hope.” But he expressed concern because some Americans will remain in urban areas as trainers and advisers.

“If the occupation forces breach the claimed withdrawal even with the government’s cover, then the people have the right to express their opinion by peaceful means and the right of self-defense in a way that does not harm the Iraqi people or security forces,” he said.

Al-Sadr’s militiamen fought fierce battles with U.S. forces in 2004 and were believed responsible for brutal retaliatory sectarian attacks against Sunnis. The cleric called a cease-fire after U.S.-backed government offensives routed his fighters.

Iraqi police in the violent northern city of Mosul held a military parade Wednesday, celebrating the June 30 deadline for the U.S. withdrawal a day late in an effort to outwit any plans to attack the ceremony, Maj. Gen. Mohammed Sabri said.

Officers wearing blue camouflage uniforms and white gloves hoisted a poster of al-Maliki — a practice that harks back to the Saddam Hussein era — and Iraqi flags as they marched in formation.

Associated Press writer Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad and the AP News Research Center in New York contributed to this report.

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