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Iraq violence drops to summer 2005 levels

The Baltimore Sun

BAGHDAD -- Although overall violence in Iraq has dropped to levels not seen on a sustained basis since the summer of 2005, suicide bombings appear to be making a comeback, according to figures released yesterday by the top U.S. commander in Iraq.

Such attacks are typically claimed by the Sunni militant group al-Qaida in Iraq, which Gen. David Petraeus said remained the greatest threat in the country.

Underscoring the danger posed by the group, the U.S. military announced the discovery of three bodies at a site north of Baghdad that a resident said contained a mass grave.

The grisly find Friday about eight miles northwest of Baqouba coincided with reports that al-Qaida in Iraq had used a nearby shack to hold and torture kidnap victims, said Lt. Col. Patrick Mackin, intelligence officer for the 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division.

U.S.-led forces dug up one of the bodies after getting a tip from the resident, who said the site contained about 20 corpses, the military said in a statement. It appeared the victim had been buried for at least a month, it said.

Two skeletons were found by residents, the statement said.

Despite such discoveries, a spokesman for Iraq's Interior Ministry said yesterday that U.S. and Iraqi forces had destroyed 75 percent of the network, a mostly local movement that U.S. intelligence indicates is foreign-led.

Maj. Gen. Abdul Kareem Khalaf did not specify how that determination was made but said groups of fighters remained active in the areas north of the capital, which include Baqouba.

Petraeus said the number of high-profile bombings, a trademark of Sunni insurgents, had dropped 60 percent from a peak of more than 120 in March. The most noticeable drop was in remotely detonated car bombs, according to a chart he presented at a separate briefing.

But suicide attacks using explosives vests and car bombs began to inch back up in November and December, the chart showed.

At least 24 people were killed and as many as 100 injured in two suicide bombings on Christmas Day.

Military officials say the drop in attacks has been accompanied by a 75 percent decline in civilian deaths in Baghdad since June.

U.S. military deaths are also down, with 20 Americans reported killed so far this month, compared to more than 100 in April, May and June, according to the independent Web site

Despite the encouraging numbers, U.S. commanders have been cautious about making optimistic predictions. "Progress is of course tenuous, and it could be reversed," Petraeus said.

Petraeus reiterated that progress on the security front has not been matched on the political front, with leaders of Iraq's main ethnic and sectarian factions deadlocked on key power-sharing laws.

Decisions must also be made about how to accommodate the more than 70,000 Iraqi volunteers helping to secure their local areas, he said.

Iraq's Shiite-led government has been slow to embrace the mostly Sunni volunteers, who include former insurgents, fearing that they could turn their guns against the authorities when U.S. forces are no longer there to supervise them.

Tina Susman and Alexandra Zavis write for the Los Angeles Times.

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