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Red Cross Warns of Complacency in Still-Bloody Iraq

by Mohammed Abbas

BAGHDAD - Violence may have fallen sharply in Iraq from the worst days of sectarian killing, but an average monthly death toll of 500 people must not be considered "normal," the International Committee of the Red Cross said.

A mourner cries as he carries the coffin of a man killed by Iraqi forces in Baghdad Septemer 9, 2009. Iraqi forces, backed by U.S. troops, killed two men during a pre-dawn raid in southeastern Baghdad, witnesses and the U.S. military said. The U.S. military said the force returned fire on the two men after coming under fire themselves. (REUTERS/Saad Shalash) "There is a lack of respect for human life. Even if security has improved a lot ... you still have dozens of people killed on a daily basis," Juan-Pedro Schaerer, the head of the Red Cross' Iraq delegation, told Reuters in an interview Tuesday.

The lingering violence in Iraq may have faded from world headlines, and Iraq's retreat from the brink of civil war two years ago may be presented as a good news story, but civilians continue to bear the brunt of ongoing attacks.

While the number of daily attacks have dropped sharply since the height of the sectarian violence in 2006 and 2007, Iraqis still fall victim to regular roadside bombs, suicide attacks and other violence.

Militant activity is centred in ethnically mixed areas of central and northern Iraq, and local police and soldiers are prime targets. In August, the number of civilians killed shot up to 393, the highest level since April.

On August 19, around 100 people were killed in twin truck bombings at government ministries in Baghdad.

"This is a real concern. Civilians are paying the high price of this violence in Iraq ... Sometimes there is the impression that life is going on as normal," Schaerer said.

As attention in Europe and the United States shifts towards Afghanistan, the government of U.S. President Barack Obama is removing troops from Iraq as part of the plan to halt all combat activities in August of next year.

Some fear violence could flare anew in the lead-up to hotly contested national elections in January, in which Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is expected to face off against erstwhile allies from Iraq's Shi'ite Muslim majority.

The International Committee of the Red Cross is aiming to shift more resources to Iraq's north, where attacks are reported almost daily in Nineveh province's violent capital Mosul, and to the disputed city of Kirkuk.

Iraq's minority Kurds claim oil-producing Kirkuk as their ancestral homeland and want to fold it into their largely autonomous enclave of Kurdistan, a move Arabs reject.

Disputes over Kirkuk and other regions in the last year have come close to outright conflict.

"The idea is ... to increase our presence in the so-called disputed territories, to be more present in Kirkuk and hopefully at one stage to be more present in Nineveh," Schaerer said.

ICRC's operations in Iraq include delivering aid, supporting water and health projects and visiting detainees in Iraqi and U.S. detention centres, one of its main activities.

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