BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- Sectarian bloodshed has dropped sharply in Iraq from the high levels of 2006-07, but attacks against U.S. and government forces continue, claiming the lives of Iraqi civilians in step, a new study has found.
Between at least 8,300 and 9,000 civilians were killed in Iraq in 2008, bringing the total of civilian deaths since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 to at least 98,400, human rights group Iraq Body Count said in a new report.
Twenty-five civilians died a day in 2008, the study found. While far below 2006-2007, when at least 48,000 civilians were killed, it is comparable to violence during 2003-2004.
"The first thing is that there has been a very, very significant decrease in violent deaths in the last year, and this decrease has been most prevalent in Baghdad," said John Sloboda, the group's co-founder and spokesman.
Still, "no one was saying in 2004 that levels of violence were acceptable. People were talking about a country in terrible decline. It's only an improvement ... from the appalling peak in violence in 2006 and 2007," he said.
The group, which collates deaths reported by media and from other sources, acknowledges the true toll of more than five years of violence in Iraq may be far higher.
Sloboda said the drop in violence in 2008 reflected a slowing of "intercommunal," or sectarian deaths, which soared between minority Sunni Arabs and majority Shi'ites following the bombing of a Shi'ite shrine in February 2006.
In order to staunch violence, the United States sent tens of thousands of additional troops to Iraq in 2007, which the Bush administration has largely credited for improving security.
Others argue that the newfound assistance of Sunni tribal leaders helped, or assert that violence subsided after Baghdad's reorganization to a larger degree along sectarian lines.
Sloboda said that attacks continue against U.S. and other foreign forces, Iraqi police and soldiers, government officials, and members of "Awakening Councils," local patrol units often made up of former insurgents.
"Because this violence is actually against the occupation, it is unlikely to drop while the occupation continues," he said.
The grim estimates come as the United States prepares to draw down its troops in Iraq from around 143,000 today and restrict operations ahead of a 2012 deadline for withdrawal.
U.S. President-elect Barack Obama has planned to remove troops within 16 months.
Since 2003, more than 4,200 U.S. soldiers and more than 175 British soldiers have died in Iraq.
The study found that Iraqi civilian deaths involving foreign forces reached 584 in 2008, compared to 1,359 in 2007.