WASHINGTON—U.S. military deaths in Iraq during March hit a two-year low, even as religious and ethnic violence between Iraqi factions skyrocketed.
According to Pentagon statistics, 30 American service members died during the month, the lowest level since February 2004, when 20 troops died. All but four of the deaths were by hostile fire.
The number of deaths attributed to roadside bombs, which remain the overall top killer of U.S. forces, was 12, the lowest in a year.
American military officials credited the drop to improved performance of Iraqi security forces in recent weeks and better training of U.S. troops.
"What I would tell you is the Iraqi security forces' capability is getting better," said Army Maj. Gen. James Thurman, the commander of coalition forces in Baghdad. "And I attribute ... a lot of the decline in our fatalities (to) the alertness and the training levels of our soldiers."
But some analysts said the nature of the war had changed, with Iraqi factions now attacking one another rather than American forces.
"What you have is the insurgents are trying to block the formation of a coalition government and trying to cause a civil war," said Anthony Cordesman, a former Pentagon official who's now an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "That means that a lot of these attacks now focus on Iraqi civilians."
U.S. fatalities in Iraq reached a 12-month high last October, when 96 service members died.
Statistics released by the American-led coalition show that the number of Iraqis killed in violence has zoomed since the Feb. 22 insurgent bombing of the Askariya mosque in Samarra, an important Shiite Muslim shrine.
More than 1,300 Iraqis have died in retaliatory killings between Sunni Muslim and Shiite groups since the mosque bombing. Nearly 1,000 of those deaths were in Baghdad, according to the statistics.
Car bombs killed at least 173 Iraqis in the same period, 146 of them in Baghdad, according to coalition statistics.
Kidnappings and executions of Iraqis also rose. According to Iraqi officials, an average of 40 kidnappings are reported daily in Iraq, most in Baghdad. Iraqi and coalition forces are finding an average of 20 bodies a day from the wave of killings.
Attacks on Iraqi police and soldiers are also up 36 percent, from an average of 55 a day from August 2005 through early February 2006 to an average of 75 a day from Feb. 10 to March 24, according to coalition statistics.
Thurman suggested that one reason U.S. deaths from roadside bombs are down is that troops are finding more of the devices before they explode. In March, coalition forces encountered 602 roadside bombs, and found about half of them before they went off, he said.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Nancy A. Youssef contributed to this report from Baghdad.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.