BAGHDAD - Iraqi civilian deaths in Baghdad dropped significantly in June, a possible indication that recent American military operations around the country and raids on car-bomb shops in the "belts" ringing the capital are starting to pay off.
But June also marked the end of the bloodiest quarter for U.S. troops since the war began in March 2003.
Unofficial figures compiled by McClatchy Newspapers' show 189 Iraqis, including police and government security forces, were killed in the capital through Friday, a drop of nearly two thirds since this year's high in February, when 520 were killed. The average monthly death toll of Iraqis in Baghdad was 410 from December through May.
The downturn in civilian deaths in Baghdad, should the figures hold, could arm Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, with the kind of results he needs to forestall pressure to set timetables on troop withdrawals. He is scheduled to deliver a progress report on the war to Congress in September.
Securing the capital remains the U.S. military's top priority.
The trade-off for the decline in civilian deaths in Baghdad may be high U.S. casualties. The Web site icasualties.org tallied 101 U.S. soldiers killed in June, one of the deadliest months in Iraq for American forces. This raised to 330 the number of U.S. troops killed in the last three months.
The U.S. military, having added 28,500 additional forces, are now at full "surge" strength of 150,000 and are engaged in high-profile military campaigns to pacify the country.
U.S. commanders warn a higher body count is in the offing, as forces step up fighting this summer. Forty-four of the U.S. casualties in June occurred in Baghdad, caused mostly by roadside bombs - five of them Thursday in an attack involving a roadside bomb, gunfire and grenades in Baghdad's southern Rasheed district. Seven soldiers were wounded, the military said.
But the same U.S.-led surge that is taking the fight to insurgents in Iraq is apparently still placing civilians in the crossfire.
At least 22 Iraqi citizens have died, mostly outside the capital, during U.S. clashes with Sunni insurgents and Shiite militia over the past eight days, according to Iraqi police reports. The U.S. military does not disclose the numbers of Iraqi civilians killed by American troops, despite repeated requests from McClatchy.
Civilian deaths seemingly are inevitable in urban guerilla warfare that pits U.S. forces against fighters who live among the population. U.S. military officials say they are sensitive to potential backlash that could enflame anti-American opposition here.
But civilian deaths occur. U.S.military officials said two pre-dawn raids Saturday in Shiite-dominated Sadr City in eastern Baghdad killed 26 "terrorists" and captured 17 fighters with links to Iran. U.S. forces said they opened fire on fighters detonating roadside bombs or firing guns and rocket-propelled grenades from buildings and from behind parked cars.
No U.S. casualties were reported.
U.S. forces "were in the middle of multisided firefight engaging enemy fighters," in Sadr City, said U.S. Army spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Garver. "We saw no evidence of any civilian casualties."
Iraqi police, however, reported late Saturday that four Iraqi civilians were killed, and six injured during the American-led attack.
Sadr City is the sprawling stronghold of anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, where residents widely regard his Mahdi Army militiamen as freedom fighters.
me Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has openly criticized the U.S. military for previous civilian deaths, demanded an explanation of the Sadr City attacks. He also said U.S. and Iraqi forces need to seek the government's permission to launch raids in Baghdad.
Garver said U.S. forces attacked because the targets were members of a "secret cell network" linked to Iran, "not because of their affiliation with a militia or whatever."
Also on Saturday, two U.S. soldiers were charged with the murdering three Iraqis, the U.S. military said.
The soldiers are accused of killing three Iraqis in separate incidents, then planting weapons on the victims' remains, the military said in a statement. Fellow soldiers reported the alleged crimes, which took place between April and June in the vicinity of Iskandariyah, 30 miles south of Baghdad, it said.
The U.S. military on Saturday identified the soldiers as Staff Sgt. Michael Hensley from Chandler, N.C., and Spc. Jorge Sandoval from Laredo, Texas.
Hensley is charged with three counts each of premeditated murder, obstructing justice and "wrongfully placing weapons with the remains of deceased Iraqis," the military said. He was placed in military confinement in Kuwait on Thursday.
Sandoval faces one count each of premeditated murder and placing a weapon with the remains of a dead Iraqi, a statement said. He was taken into custody Tuesday while at home in Texas, and was transferred to military confinement in Kuwait three days later, it said.
The U.S. military also is investigating the June 22 killings of 17 people in a U.S. helicopter attack in Khalis, 30 miles north of Baghdad. Residents say the victims were not fighters from al Qaida in Iraq, as the military originally claimed, but members of a village guard force and civilians.
The killings took place during the opening days of Operation Arrowhead Ripper, in the Diyala province, which shares a porous border with Iran and is home to Sunni, Shiite and ethnic Kurds.
(Drummond reports for the Charlotte Observer)