- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 17, 2006

BAGHDAD — The sectarian violence that has brought Iraq to the verge of civil war has had one unexpected benefit: a marked fall in the number of American military casualties in Baghdad.

American combat deaths in the capital are down 50 percent from the same three-month period last year and some terrorists say the United States has succeeded in deflecting attention from its own troops.

“Now we are fighting each other,” said one insurgent. “That is what the Americans wanted and now they are winning.”

From July to September last year, 44 U.S. personnel were killed in Baghdad. In the corresponding period this year, the figure fell to 24, a reflection, according to militia leaders, of the changing priorities of the insurgents.

Although the number of attacks on American forces in Baghdad has dropped, sectarian violence in the capital has snowballed in recent months as Sunni and Shi’ite gunmen attack each other.

Dozens of bodies turn up around the city each day, many the victims of summary execution, as Iraq edges closer to civil war.

Yesterday, another 35 bodies were found around Baghdad, bringing the total since Wednesday to more than 150. Many of the victims had been bound, tortured and shot.

With Sunnis and Shi’ites concentrating on attacking each other, they admit that they are struggling to find the time and resources to target Americans.

Hanza al Nasawi, a spokesman for Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army, said it was not possible to keep fighting on two fronts.

“We stopped the fight against the Americans and now we are fighting against the terrorists because they are killing the Shia,” he said. “We want to defend the Shia.”

Nahid al Gertani, a former officer in the Republican Guard and one of the leaders of the Sunni fighters in southern Baghdad, said his forces were defending the Sunnis against the Shi’ite militias. “Our first target is the Shia militia,” he said. “We made an agreement with the American Army four months ago to stop the fight.”

Mr. al Gertani said the insurgents had decided to stop fighting the Americans so they could concentrate on tackling the Shi’ite militias, but emphasized that this did not reflect any thaw in relations between the two sides. “They are not our friends, and we will fight another day.”

Iraqi civilians say they had recently been surprised to see U.S. troops in parts of the city where they previously would have been attacked had they ventured out. U.S. forces also are reported to have intervened to keep the warring parties apart, placing guards on the Alkubasey mosque — a known base for Sunni fighters — to protect it from Shi’ite attacks.

Abu Tayseer, a Baghdad councilor, said he was angry that the militias were fighting each other instead of the Americans.

“That is what the Americans wanted and now they are winning,” he said.

The Pentagon said it is making progress in restoring order to Baghdad.

“Under Iraqi leadership, Operation Together Forward is continuing its advances toward reducing sectarian violence and terrorist attacks,” said Lt. Col. Todd Vician, a Pentagon spokesman.

“We are cautiously optimistic that the cycle of retaliatory violence has slowed in targeted areas, but we also recognize that the real measurement of this progress must be seen over time.”

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