/ 1 April 2008

Iraq death toll surges in March

The number of Iraqis killed in March climbed to 1 082, mostly civilians, the highest monthly figure since August, amid a spike in violence driven by clashes between Shi’ite militiamen and security forces, officials said on Tuesday.

Combined figures obtained by Agence France-Presse (AFP) from the interior, defence and health ministries showed that the total number of Iraqis killed in March was 1 082, including 925 civilians, up from the February figure of 721.

The jump in the March toll was due to a week of heavy fighting between Iraq’s security forces and Shi’ite militiamen in Baghdad and the southern oil hub of Basra, and the result of sustained bomb attacks by insurgents.

The figure confirms a reversal of the trend of gradually decreasing violence since June and follows tolls of 541 in January, 568 in December, 606 in November, 887 in October, 917 in September, and 1 856 last August.

A total of 54 Iraqi soldiers and 103 policemen were killed in March, according to the figures.

The number of people wounded in March was 1 630, almost double February’s tally of 847.

Clashes broke out in the southern city of Basra a week ago when Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ordered his troops to raid neighbourhoods controlled by the Mehdi Army militia of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

The fighting spread to Baghdad and other Shi’ite areas of the country, killing at least 461 people, according to an AFP tally based on reports by security officials.

The battles eased after Sadr on Sunday ordered his fighters to withdraw from the streets. Clashes since then have only been sporadic.

Maliki on Tuesday ordered his security forces to stop random raids and arrests but said they should ”deal strongly with any groups carrying arms in public”.

His order came as Sadr’s leaders accused the security forces of continuing to arrest Mehdi Army members in Basra and other Shi’ite areas of Iraq.

Harith al-Athari, chief of Sadr’s office in Basra, said the cleric’s militiamen were being ”exposed to random arrests and raids [and] houses of the members were being burned. This is in violation of what has been agreed upon.”

Sadr, meanwhile, hailed his Mehdi Army militia for standing up to Iraq’s security forces during the fighting.

”I greet you and thank you for facing the difficulties, being patient, obedient, supportive of each other, defending your land, people and honour,” Sadr said in a handwritten statement released by his office in the shrine city of Najaf late on Monday.

Last month also saw a spate of bombings across Iraq, including one on March 18 near a revered Shi’ite shrine in the central city of Karbala that killed more than 50 people.

The number of US soldiers who died in Iraq also rose in March, with 37 killed across the country, up from 29 in February according to an AFP tally based on independent website icasualties.org.

January’s Iraqi death toll had reached a 23-month low, with US commanders saying that all types of attacks were down to levels not seen before the February 2006 bombing of a Shi’ite shrine in the town of Samarra that unleashed a wave of sectarian violence.

The bloodshed that erupted after the shrine attack peaked in January 2007, with 1 992 deaths reported by the three ministries.

The reduction in the violence during the six months to January was attributed to a ”surge” of an extra 30 000 US troops in Iraq, the formation by Sunni leaders of anti-al-Qaeda fronts, and Sadr’s suspension of the activities of his Mehdi Army militia the previous August.

Following the drop in violence and because of sustained domestic pressure, Bush late in 2007 signalled a cutback in the level of troops deployed in Iraq. — AFP