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US: Iraq Attacks At Lowest Levels Since 2003

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CAMP STRIKER, Iraq — Attacks on Iraqi security forces have increased in an area south of Baghdad where the Iraqis are in control, even as violence nationwide has fallen to levels of the first months of the war, U.S. officers said Wednesday.

The spike in attacks has not risen so much that it would affect U.S. plans to turn over more security responsibility to the Iraqis, Gen. Carter Ham, the commander of U.S. Army Europe, was told during a visit with Europe-based units.

During a briefing for the general, Maj. Pat Kaune, intelligence chief of the 1st Armored Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, said attacks on U.S. forces in his sector had fallen by about half since the unit arrived from Germany a year ago.

In the last month, however, attacks on Iraqi army and police leaders had increased, he said.

Kaune gave no figures but added that "we don't see any trends that are cause for concern that the ISF (Iraqi security forces) can't handle."

His brigade's area includes south Baghdad and a belt of communities around the southern rim of the capital, where insurgents used to rig car bombs for attacks in the city.

The area was targeted by U.S. soldiers during the 2007 troop surge, which largely succeeded in shutting down car bomb factories there.

But the increase in attacks there underscores the resilience of both Sunni and Shiite militants and will test the ability of Iraq's security forces to maintain order as the U.S. draws down its military presence this year.

Despite the local spike, U.S. military spokesman Maj. Gen. David Perkins said attacks nationwide had fallen to levels of the early months of the war, which began with the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.

"At the height of the violence, we were averaging 1,250 attacks a week," Perkins told reporters Wednesday. "Now, many times, we have less than 100 a week."

Perkins said that in January and February of 2007, 148 U.S. troops were killed in action in Iraq. In the first two months of this year, 19 troops died as a result of hostile fire.

"If you take a look at military deaths, which is an indicator of violence and lethality out there, U.S. combat deaths are at their lowest levels since the war began six years ago," Perkins said.

Iraq's army and police do not routinely release figures on attacks, citing security concerns.

This month, however, a police commander in Wasit province, a mostly Shiite area southeast of Baghdad, said kidnappings, murders and robberies had soared there by 50 percent in the past two months.

The commander, Aziz al-Amarah, blamed the rise on power struggles among local political parties _ some of which have links to armed groups.

An Iraqi police officer in south Baghdad acknowledged a spike in attacks in his sector, which he blamed mostly on Sunni militants such as al-Qaida. He gave no figures and spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not supposed to talk to media.

Iraqi officials also believe that Shiite extremist groups, including the League of the Righteous, are regrouping in the south. The U.S. believes those groups are supported by Iran, a charge the Iranians deny.

Despite an overall decline in violence, attacks continue, especially in the north where al-Qaida is holding out.

In the northern city of Mosul, a bomb apparently targeting a U.S. patrol exploded Wednesday, killing three children on their way home from school, according to an Iraqi security official.

A local official of a U.S.-allied Sunni group was killed by an unidentified gunman just north of Baghdad, according to another official. Both spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.

Also Wednesday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem arrived for talks with Iraqi officials, who have expressed concern about activities of former Saddam Hussein loyalists who fled to Syria after the collapse of the former regime.

Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi's office announced Wednesday that Turkey's president promised to double the allocation of water from the Tigris river to Iraq.

The statement came after Turkish President Abdullah Gul spent two days meeting with Iraqi officials in Baghdad.

The Tigris rises in Turkey, which has reduced flow of the rivers through dams, cutting the amount that reaches Iraq. Water has long been a source of tension between the two countries.