Iraq casualties rise again after Qaeda bombs

( Reuter )- Violent civilian deaths in Iraq rose 36 percent in February from the previous month after a series of large-scale bombings blamed on al Qaeda, Iraqi government figures showed on Saturday.

A total of 633 civilians died violently in February, compared with 466 in January, according to figures released by Iraq's interior, defense and health ministries. It was the first increase after six consecutive months of falling casualty tolls.

Despite its sharp rise, the February 2008 figure was still dramatically lower than the 1,645 civilians who died violently in the same month a year ago. A total of 701 civilians were wounded, compared with 2,700 a year ago.

Declining civilian casualties have been hailed by Iraqi and U.S. military officials as proof that new counter-insurgency tactics adopted last year have been working and Iraq is safer.

February's casualty figures spiked after female bombers killed 99 people at two pet markets in Baghdad on February 2 and a suicide bomber killed 63 people returning from a Shi'ite religious ritual south of Baghdad on February 24.

Both attacks were blamed on al Qaeda, which U.S. commanders says has been resorted to new tactics, particularly the increased use of women in suicide attacks.

U.S. military officials said the suspected leader of a group that planned suicide bomb attacks had been detained in an operation on Friday near Khan Bani Saad, north of Baghdad. They said he was suspected of trying to recruit women, including his wife, to carry out bombings.

Officials say attacks across Iraq have fallen 60 percent since last June, when an extra 30,000 U.S. troops became fully deployed as part of the new counter-insurgency strategy, which included moving troops out of large bases and into smaller combat outposts.

However U.S. commanders say al Qaeda and other insurgents remain dangerous enemies especially in Iraq's north where they have regrouped after crackdowns on former strongholds in western Anbar province and around Baghdad last year.

In northern Mosul, police were searching for Paulos Faraj Rahho, the Chaldean Catholic archbishop snatched at gunpoint after he left a church on Friday. His driver and two guards were killed in the attack.

Police and representatives of the Chaldean church, a branch of the Roman Catholic Church which practices an ancient Eastern rite, said nothing had been heard about Rahho's fate.

Christians make up about 3 percent of Iraq's 27 million mainly Muslim population and have been targeted several times in recent years. A Catholic priest and three assistants were killed in ethnically and religiously mixed Mosul last June.

"The situation for Christians is like that for other people in Iraq. We live in the same society and we are sharing the same suffering," Andraws Abuna, an assistant to the Chaldean patriarch of Baghdad, told Reuters.

U.S. military deaths fell after a spike in January. So far 29 U.S. soldiers have been reported killed in February, compared with 40 in January.

Both figures are much lower than a year ago, when 81 and 83 were killed in February and January 2007 as Iraq teetered on the brink of all-out sectarian civil war between majority Shi'ites and minority Sunni Arabs.

A total of 3,973 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Britain's Ministry of Defense said a British airman had been killed late on Friday in a rocket attack on its military base in the southern city of Basra. The victim was the 175th British serviceman to be killed in Iraq since 2003.

The latest Iraqi data showed 65 policemen and 20 Iraqi soldiers were killed, compared with 132 and 28 respectively in January, and that 235 insurgents had been killed and 1,340 detained.

Another factor in improved security has been the six-month ceasefire announced in August of the Mehdi Army militia of anti-U.S. Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. That ceasefire was extended by another six months last month.

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