BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The toll of sectarian death-squad killings in the capital has declined sharply in recent days in the face of an imminent crackdown on organized sectarian militias, officials said yesterday.
Iraqi authorities found 19 bodies of young men scattered around the capital yesterday, a sharp drop from the scores found each day several weeks ago. The reported daily body count for the last week or so has hovered around 30 or lower.
The bodies of late have not shown signs of torture often associated with Shiite Muslim militias, morgue and hospital officials say.
Officials cautioned that the casualty figures are preliminary and sketchy. Previous drops in Baghdad violence have been followed by upsurges.
U.S. and Iraqi officials hope an increase in American troops, political pressure and aggressive new tactics to protect Baghdad neighborhoods can reduce the level of violence in the capital and pave the way for political reconciliation and an end to the country's undeclared sectarian civil war. Additional U.S. troops have begun to arrive in recent days, to be deployed in certain volatile neighbors.
U.S. military officials in the capital's volatile northern district of Adhamiya confirmed the statistical drop shown in morgue and police casualty figures collected daily by the Los Angeles Times. "During the last two weeks, Task Force 1-26 has seen a decrease in found dead bodies in Adhamiya," said Capt. Jared Purcell, spokesman for a Taji-based unit that patrols parts of northeastern Baghdad.
Purcell attributed the decline, which he said was in the ballpark of the Times' estimate of a 50 percent drop, to stepped-up pressure on insurgent and militias cells, including raids conducted against high-level insurgents as well as political pressure and aggressive patrols by the U.S. military and the Iraqi police and army.
Some observers speculated that the drop in the number of bodies bearing marks of torture indicated a decline in Shiite militia activity, but Purcell said the decrease is not necessarily attributed to Shiite groups laying low.
Still, violence continued across Iraq, with at least three U.S. service members and 56 Iraqis reported killed. And a U.S. security company helicopter crashed yesterday in a residential neighborhood in east-central Baghdad amid reports of ground fire, U.S. and Iraqi officials and witnesses said. A U.S. official said five American civilians on board were killed.
A senior Iraqi military official said the aircraft was shot down, but this was disputed by a U.S. military official in Washington. The Iraqi said the helicopter was hit by a machine gunner over the Fadhil neighborhood on the east side of the Tigris River, while the American official said there was no indication in initial reports that the aircraft, owned by North Carolina-based Blackwater USA, had been shot down.
A second U.S. official, in Baghdad, said the five killed were Americans. All the officials demanded anonymity because the details had not been made public. The Americans said they did not know what caused the aircraft to crash.
The helicopter was believed to have been escorting a VIP convoy on the ground as it headed away from the heavily fortified Green Zone to an undisclosed destination.
The crash of the small surveillance helicopter was the second associated with the U.S. war effort in Iraq in four days.
A Black Hawk helicopter went down Saturday northeast of Baghdad, killing all 12 service members on board. The U.S. military in Baghdad has refused to confirm a report by a Pentagon official that debris at the crash site indicated the helicopter was shot out of the air by a surface-to-air missile.
Yesterday, the U.S. military announced the deaths of three more service members, a Marine killed Sunday south of Baghdad, a soldier killed Monday in Anbar province and a soldier killed Monday north of Baghdad. The deaths raised the three-day toll since Saturday to 31.
Borzou Daragahi writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.