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Iraq violence lowest since '06 mosque attack

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Violence in Iraq has fallen to its lowest level since before a 2006 mosque attack which unleashed the deadliest phase of the Iraq war, the deputy commander of U.S. forces in Iraq said on Thursday.

Lieutenant-General Raymond Odierno said attacks in Baghdad had also fallen by half since January, just before Washington began pouring 30,000 extra troops into Iraq to try to drag the nation back from the brink of sectarian civil war.

"There are still way too many civilian casualties inside of Baghdad and Iraq," Odierno said, after telling a news conference the number of sectarian killings in the capital had fallen from an average of about 32 a day to 12 a day this year.

U.S. forces launched a crackdown in Baghdad in February that spread to other provinces, targeting Sunni Islamist al Qaeda and other Sunni Arab insurgents as well as Shi'ite militias.

"Al Qaeda in Iraq is increasingly being pushed out of Baghdad and the surrounding areas. They are now seeking refuge elsewhere in the country and even fleeing Iraq," Odierno said.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki this month said his government had averted civil war and that levels of violence in Baghdad and surrounding areas had fallen 75 percent this year.

And on Thursday, President George W. Bush defended plans to withdraw about 20,000 U.S. troops by July, saying: "Progress will yield fewer troops."

Al Qaeda, however, has vowed to step up attacks during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan.

Odierno said there had been no sign of any reprisal attacks so far since a separate Baghdad shooting on Sunday involving U.S. security firm Blackwater in which 11 people were killed.

U.S. and Iraqi officials have launched a joint inquiry into the incident, with Maliki's government announcing it had halted the work of Blackwater, which guards U.S. embassy officials, and would review all local and foreign security firms.

U.S. embassy spokeswoman Mirembe Nantongo said Blackwater was still contracted to the State Department but had not done any work since a ban on U.S. diplomatic convoys leaving Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone was imposed on Tuesday. 

In Iraq's north, the U.S. military said it had arrested an Iranian man it accused of being a member of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards Quds force who had smuggled deadly roadside bombs into Iraq.

Iran said the man, detained during an early-morning raid on a hotel in Sulaimaniya in autonomous Kurdistan, was a businessman. Kurdistan and Iraqi government officials said he was a member of a trade delegation.

Old foes Tehran and Washington accuse each other of being responsible for Iraq's violence.


The bombing of the golden-domed al-Askari mosque, one of Iraq's four holiest Shi'ite shrines, in mainly Sunni Arab Samarra in February 2006 sparked the deadliest phase of violence since the U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Sectarian violence had been on the rise, but the bombing changed the focus from a Sunni Arab insurgency against U.S. and Iraqi forces into a spate of revenge sectarian attacks in which tens of thousands of Iraqis died and many more fled their homes.

Odierno said U.S. and Iraqi forces had been keeping al Qaeda and other militant groups "off balance" by targeting their leadership as they push out of large bases into smaller combat outposts and joint command centers.

He said 60 percent more weapons caches had been discovered in the first nine months of 2007 than in all of 2006, leading to a decrease in attacks by improvised explosive devices.

The security crackdown was seen by Washington as an attempt to buy time for Iraq's fractured government to reach benchmarks aimed at reconciling majority Shi'ites and minority Sunni Arabs.

Maliki's Shi'ite-led coalition has been paralyzed by infighting and the withdrawal of about a dozen ministers from cabinet, but a senior lawmaker said there were no plans for a no-confidence vote against Maliki's 16-month-old administration.

Deputy speaker Khaled al-Attiya also told Reuters that much-delayed legislation on a crucial oil law that will regulate how wealth from the world's third-largest oil reserves will be shared would be debated in parliament in October.

(Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny and Mussab Al-Khairalla)

Iraq violence lowest since '06 mosque attack -  Source

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