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Fewer Iraqi Civilians Reported Killed In July

U.S. Army soldiers searching a vehicle in Baghdad on July 31
BAGHDAD -- The number of civilians killed in Iraq last month fell to less than a quarter of the toll in July 2007, government figures showed, underscoring a dramatic improvement in security.

The declining violence is welcome news for U.S. President George W. Bush, who on July 31 held out the prospect of further troop reductions this year.

The statistics showed 387 civilians were killed last month, down from 448 in June. More than 1,650 people were killed in July 2007.

The better security was also reflected in U.S. military casualties in July, which fell to their lowest level since the U.S.-led invasion of the country in 2003.

Six U.S. soldiers were killed in combat in Iraq last month, compared to 66 in July 2007, according to the independent website, which tracks wartime deaths.

The U.S. military commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, will make recommendations to Bush in September on troop levels -- an issue ahead of the November U.S. presidential election.

There are 143,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq after the last of five extra combat brigades sent last year were withdrawn in July.

The deployment of the additional U.S. troops, a decision by Sunni Arab tribal leaders to turn against Al-Qaeda, and a cease-fire imposed by Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr on his Imam Al-Mahdi Army are all factors credited with the reduced violence.

The government figures showed nearly 80 Iraqi police and soldiers were killed in July, while 107 insurgents were killed and close to 900 arrested.

Petraeus and other commanders caution that the gains in Iraq are fragile and could be reversed. Indeed, four suicide bombers killed around 60 people in attacks on July 28.

Big Operation In Diyala

Cementing the security gains will still be a test for Washington and for Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who in recent months has launched several major offensives against Shi'ite militias and Sunni Arab Al-Qaeda insurgents.

Earlier this week, Iraqi troops and police launched a crackdown against Al-Qaeda in Diyala Governorate, northeast of Baghdad. Diyala is one of the country's most restive areas.

After several days searching homes in Diyala, Iraqi security forces have detained around 150 people, officials said.

The changing security conditions in Iraq have also colored the debate in the U.S. presidential race, where Iraq is one of the most divisive issues between Democratic candidate Barack Obama and Republican John McCain.

Obama has promised a "steady, deliberate drawdown" that would aim to remove U.S. combat forces from Iraq in 16 months should he win the election. Obama wants to shift military resources to the worsening conflict in Afghanistan.

McCain late last month warned that pursuit of Obama's withdrawal plan could have disastrous consequences.

However, McCain also acknowledged in a CNN interview that a 16-month period would be "a pretty good timetable", but said any withdrawal must be based on conditions on the ground.