BAGHDAD -- The U.S. second-in-command in Iraq said Thursday that violence was down in Baghdad following the seven-month security operation in Baghdad, but that too many civilians are still dying.
Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno told reporters that car bombs and suicide attacks in Baghdad have fallen to their lowest levels in a year, and civilian casualties have dropped from a high of about 32 to 12 per day. He also said violence in Baghdad had decreased 50 percent.
But he did not provide more specific timeframes.
"What we do know is that there has been a decline in civilian casualties, but I would say again that it's not at the level we want it to be," Odierno said. "There are still way too many civilian casualties inside of Baghdad and Iraq."
At least 26 people were killed or found dead nationwide, including three people who perished in a car bombing in Baghdad's Shiite enclave of Sadr City and the chief judge of the mostly Shiite Karrada district court.
In southern Iraq, a representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the nation's top Shiite cleric, was assassinated late Thursday, police said. Amjad al-Janabi and his driver were traveling west of Basra when gunmen opened fire on their vehicle, police said. At least three aides to al-Sistani have been slain since early August; the killings were believed to be part of a Shiite power struggle.
An Associated Press tally shows fewer deaths by car bombs or suicide attacks were recorded inside Baghdad in August than any other month in 2007, but that it was a deadly month nevertheless for civilians in the city.
While 139 Iraqis were killed in such attacks, 530 others lost their lives by other violent means within Baghdad, most turning up as bodies on the street -- apparent victims of so-called sectarian death squads usually run by Shiite militias, according to AP figures.
Nationwide, at least 1,975 Iraqis were killed violently in August. That figure included 500 Yazidis, a Kurdish-speaking religious minority, reported killed in one multiple bombing attack in the north. An average of 64 Iraqis were reported killed every day in August throughout the country, according to the AP analysis.
The first 19 days of September show fewer Iraqis being killed every day compared to previous months: at least 34 on average, the lowest daily toll in all of 2007, which hovers around 60 daily deaths, according to the AP figures. The daily casualty rate hasn't been this low since September 2006, when at least 1,003 Iraqis died -- an average of 33 daily.
These numbers are considered a minimum, based on AP reporting. The actual number is likely higher, as many killings go unreported or uncounted.
Iraqis, meanwhile, faced a new danger as the World Health Organization confirmed the first case of cholera in Baghdad, raising fears the disease was spreading after being detected in northern Iraq last month. More than 1,000 cases have been confirmed in the north.
Health officials stepped up measures to prevent spread of the bacteria, including closing ice factories using unfiltered water and adding chlorine to water supplies.
They also urged the government to release huge quantities of chlorine they said were being held up at Iraq's border with Jordan because of concerns the chemical could be used in explosives.
Adel Muhsin, the Health Ministry's inspector general, said teams testing water supplies in the capital had found chlorine levels were insufficient to prevent cholera in 20 areas.
Chlorine has been used in several truck bombings this year as suspected Sunni insurgents sought new ways to kill as many people as possible in their campaign of violence.
Also Thursday, the U.S. military an Iranian said to be a member of the elite Quds Force smuggling powerful roadside bombs into Iraq -- a move likely to stoke tensions between Washington and Tehran.
The Iranian officer was accused of smuggling powerful roadside bombs, including armor-piercing explosively formed penetrators, or EFPs, into Iraq. He was arrested during a raid on a hotel in Sulaimaniyah, a city in the Kurdish-controlled north, the military said.
The military said the suspect was a member of the Quds Force, an elite unit of Iran's Revolutionary Guards that officials have said the Bush administration is expected to blacklist as a terrorist organization.
The military statement said intelligence reports also indicated the suspect was involved in the infiltration and training of foreign fighters into Iraq.
At the Pentagon, spokesman Bryan Whitman said the arrest was consistent with U.S. policy and that the Iranian posed a serious threat. "It's a further reflection that they've not ceased those activities that we find troublesome," Whitman said.