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Sectarian violence in Iraq down from peak but still at double the pace of a year ago
BAGHDAD -- This year's U.S. troop buildup has succeeded in bringing violence in Baghdad down from peak levels, but the death toll from sectarian attacks around the country is running nearly double the pace from a year ago.
Some of the recent bloodshed appears to be the result of militant fighters drifting into parts of northern Iraq, where they have fled after U.S.-led offensives. Baghdad, however, still accounts for slightly more than half of all war-related killings -- the same percentage as a year ago, according to figures compiled by The Associated Press.
The tallies offer a sobering snapshot after an additional 30,000 U.S. troops began campaigns in February to regain control of the Baghdad area. They also highlight one of the themes expected in next month's Iraq progress report to Congress: some military headway, but extremist factions are far from broken.
In street-level terms, it means life for average Iraqis appears to be even more perilous.
The AP tracking includes Iraqi civilians, government officials, police and security forces killed in attacks such as gunfights and bombings, which are frequently blamed on Sunni suicide strikes. It also includes execution-style killings -- largely the work of Shiite death squads.
The figures are considered a minimum based on AP reporting. The actual numbers are likely higher, as many killings go unreported or uncounted. Insurgent deaths are not a part of the Iraqi count.
The findings include:
* Iraq is suffering about double the number of war-related deaths throughout the country compared with last year -- an average daily toll of 33 in 2006, and 62 so far this year.
* Nearly 1,000 more people have been killed in violence across Iraq in the first eight months of this year than in all of 2006. So far this year, about 14,800 people have died in war-related attacks and sectarian murders. AP reporting accounted for 13,811 deaths in 2006. The United Nations and other sources placed the 2006 toll far higher.
* Baghdad has gone from representing 76 percent of all civilian and police war-related deaths in Iraq in January to 52 percent in July, bringing it to the same spot it was roughly a year ago.
* According to the Iraqi Red Crescent Organization, the number of displaced Iraqis has more than doubled since the start of the year, from 447,337 on Jan. 1 to 1.14 million on July 31.
However, Brig. Gen. Richard Sherlock, deputy director for operational planning for the Pentagon's Joint Chiefs of Staff, said violence in Iraq "has continued to decline and is at the lowest level since June 2006."
He offered no statistics to back his claim, but in a briefing with reporters at the Pentagon on Friday he warned insurgents might try intensify attacks in Iraq to coincide with three milestones: the sixth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S., the beginning of Ramadan and the report to Congress.
The U.S. military did not get all the additional American forces into Iraq until June 15, so it would be premature to draw a final statistical picture of the effect of the added troops.
But initial calculations validate fears that the Baghdad crackdown would push militants into districts north of the capital, including Diyala province where U.S. force and Iraqi soldiers have conducted major operation to clear its main city, Baqouba, of al-Qaida in Iraq fighters.
In July, the AP figures show 35 percent of all war-related killings occurred in northern provinces. The figure one year ago was 22 percent.
The final death count for August also will likely be further oriented to the north after the savage Aug. 14 attack by suspected al-Qaida truck bombers near the Syrian border in Ninevah province. At least 500 villagers from the Yazidi sect were killed in the deadliest civilian attack of the war.
In the first months of this year, many extremists fled to Baghdad and regions to the north after Sunni tribesmen in Anbar, the sprawling desert province west of the capital, turned on their erstwhile al-Qaida allies.
Anthony Cordesman, an Iraq expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said many militants are trying to hang onto footholds in central Iraq.
"Most of the force shifts are still in the Baghdad ring and Diyala," he said in a recent interview, predicting more spectacular attacks in the days leading to next month's report to Congress by U.S. commander Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker.
"Will it lead to more bloody attacks as they try to exploit the American political debate? Yes."
Nora Bensahel, a military analyst at the Rand Corp., said that northern Iraq had become increasingly destabilized over the past few months.
The insurgents have made a "concerted effort to concentrate attacks in other parts of the country," Bensahel said, in part to escape the increased U.S. troop presence in Baghdad and in part to give the impression that no place in Iraq is safe.
Mostly, she said, the insurgents have shifted their focus to the Baghdad suburbs, but they are particularly keen to undermine the notion that northern Iraq is a "success story" for Washington and its key Iraqi partners -- including the Kurds who have maintained a near-autonomous state in the north since the early 1990s.
Staging attacks in the north "has a symbolic effect," she said.
And beyond that, Bensahel said the tactic puts the United States in a difficult situation.
"There isn't an ability to move north in any significant numbers without abandoning Baghdad" -- a change in strategy that Washington is not prepared to make, she said.
But a huge problem also looms in the south, the center of Shiite political and spiritual influence and the site of Iraq's main oil fields.
There are daily gunbattles between the Mahdi Army militia -- loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr -- and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the powerhouse Shiite political party that controls most of the bureaucracy and police forces in southern Iraq.
This month, the governors of two southern provinces loyal to the Supreme Islamic Council were killed in roadside bombings.
The clashes are expected to grow more intense as Britain draws downs its forces in southern Iraq over the coming months. The effect of the shrinking British presence is already being felt, said Cordesman in an assessment released Aug. 22.
"The end result was to turn the four provinces in southeastern Iraq over to feuding Shiite factions whose actions were mixed with corruption, extortion and links to criminal activities," he wrote.
And there are increasing signs that whole regions of the south are inclined to seek increased autonomy from the center -- moves that many Iraqis fear could lead to partition of the country.
In Najaf -- the spiritual heart for Shiites around the world -- the provincial spokesman, Ahmed Deibel, told AP early this month that the gas turbine generator there had been removed from the national electricity grid. The unilateral action has contributed to several nationwide power blackouts.
He said the provincial plant produced 50 megawatts, while the province needed at least 200 megawatts.
"What we produce is not enough even for us. We disconnected it from the national grid (Aug. 1) because the people in Baghdad were getting too much, leaving little electricity for Najaf," he said.
The No. 2 U.S. commander, Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, has also expressed fears of a big insurgent attack in the final days before the report to Congress, but also claimed the offensives have shaken militant fighters in Baghdad and environs.
"Due to the constant pressure and depletion of their leadership, extremists have been pushed out of many population centers and are on the move, seeking other places to operate within the country," Odierno said last week.
"As a result, we are now in pursuit of al-Qaida and other extremist elements, and we'll continue to aggressively target their shrinking areas of influence," he said.
"Over the coming weeks, we plan to conduct quick-strike raids against remaining extremist sanctuaries and staging areas," Odierno said.