- The Washington Times - Friday, August 1, 2008

BAGHDAD | The monthly U.S. toll in Iraq fell to its lowest point since the war began, with at least 10 American deaths as July drew to a close Thursday after the departure of the last surge brigade.

Iraqis also are dying at dramatically lower numbers with the war in its sixth year. July saw the lowest civilian toll since December 2005, though a series of suicide bombings this week and rising ethnic tensions in northern Iraq reflect the fragility of the security successes.

An Associated Press tally shows that at least 510 Iraqi civilians and security force members were killed in July, a 75 percent drop from the 2,021 deaths in the same period last year as the U.S. troop buildup aimed at quelling rampant Sunni-Shi’ite violence was nearing its peak.

The drastic decline in violence over the past year has led to increasing optimism among American commanders, who have been wary of declaring success after past lulls proved short-lived. It also has become a key issue in the U.S. presidential campaign.

“The progress is still reversible,” President Bush said Thursday in Washington. But he said a new “degree of durability in gains” should permit him to announce further U.S. troop reductions later this year.

The last of five combat brigades sent as part of the so-called surge returned home in July, leaving about 145,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.

Altogether, 10 American fatalities were recorded in July, including six non-combat deaths. The bodies of two American soldiers missing after an attack last year also were found. There were 29 deaths the previous month. By contrast, July 2007 saw 80 deaths, according to AP figures.

Iraqi casualty figures also have declined - despite sporadic high-profile attacks, including female suicide bombings that killed at least 57 people in Baghdad and the disputed northern city of Kirkuk on Monday.

July saw an average of at least 16 Iraqis killed each day compared to 65 each day in the same month last year. It was the third consecutive month this year with relatively lower violence levels for Iraqi civilians.

Violence has been slower to decline in northern Iraq.

In Mosul on Thursday, a suicide car bomber killed three policemen and a judge died of gunshot wounds. Four bullet-riddled bodies, including three women, also were found in the city a day after an al Qaeda front group warned it was launching a new campaign of violence there.

Nineveh province, of which Mosul is the capital, had 25 percent of the civilian deaths for July, a significantly higher rate than over the past year.

The U.S.-backed Iraqi military, meanwhile, pressed forward with a new operation meant to rout insurgents from rural safe havens in Diyala province south of Mosul and northeast of Baghdad.

Insurgents clashed with U.S.-allied Sunni Arab fighters and killed one of them near the village of Waib, south of the provincial capital of Baqouba.

But nearly 200 suspected militants have been captured since the operation began on Tuesday, Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Mohammed al-Askari said.

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