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Death toll declines in Iraq

The Baltimore Sun

BAGHDAD - The U.S. military announced yesterday the death of a Marine in Anbar province, even as May ended with what could be the lowest monthly toll since American-led forces invaded five years ago.

If no additional deaths are reported, the U.S. military toll for the month would be 21, according to an Associated Press count. The last time the number of U.S. deaths approached that level was in February 2004, when 20 service members were killed.

At least 4,086 U.S. personnel have been killed since the start of the war.

Two Georgian servicemen were killed last month.

At least 532 Iraqi civilians and security troopers were killed during the month, according to figures compiled by the AP from Iraqi police and military reports. That's down sharply from April's figure of 1,080 and the lowest monthly total this year, according to the AP count. The drop in casualties comes at a time when U.S. and Iraqi officials are claiming major gains against the Sunni Muslim militant group al-Qaida in Iraq, and a truce has curbed fighting with Shiite extremists.

It includes 10 people who were killed yesterday when a suicide bomber blew himself up at a police checkpoint in Hit.

Last Sunday, military spokesman Rear Adm. Patrick Driscoll said the number of attacks in the previous week fell to a level "not seen since March 2004," although he did not give specific figures.

The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Gen. David Petraeus, said in Washington last month that violence had hit a four-year low and that he would probably recommend further troop cuts after most of the additional 28,500 forces deployed last year leave by the end of July.

But the improved security trends have not been matched on the political front, leaving unresolved the simmering tensions between Iraq's major ethnic and religious groups, which could flare again into violence.

Talks aimed at bringing members of the main Sunni Muslim political alliance back into the Cabinet collapsed last week over who would occupy one of the seats. Most Sunni representatives quit Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government in August, accusing the country's majority Shiites and their ethnic Kurdish allies of refusing to share power.

U.S. officials say they hope that provincial elections slated for the fall will give Sunnis a bigger stake in the government. But the vote could become a flash point for violence, as the current power brokers are challenged by factions that boycotted the last vote in 2005.

The latest American death Friday was not linked to combat, the military said in a statement. It provided no further details about the incident.

Iraqi troops have taken the lead in the latest crackdowns in Basra, Mosul and the Baghdad district known as Sadr City, leaving U.S.-led forces in a support role, where they are less exposed to attack. At least 27 Iraqi soldiers and 32 policemen were killed nationwide last month, according to government figures.

The number of attacks by Sunni insurgents has dropped significantly since the U.S. troop buildup reached its height last June, and tens of thousands of Sunni tribesmen joined the fight against the extremists in their midst.

Alexandra Zavis writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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