BAGHDAD — The number of Iraqis killed in February rose by 33 percent over January, reversing a six-month trend of reduced violence, in a setback to the US military plan to curb the bloodshed ravaging the country.
The combined figures obtained by AFP from the interior, defence and health ministries showed that the total number of Iraqis killed in February was 721, including 636 civilians, compared with 541 dead in January.
It reverses the six-month trend of a steady fall in casualties across the country on the back of a massive US and Iraqi military assault, mainly targeting Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
The February death toll is up after a steady fall in the preceding six months. The monthly tolls were 541 in January, 568 in December, 606 in November, 887 in October, 917 in September and 1,856 in August.
The number of people wounded in February was 847.
January's death toll reached a 23-month low, with US commanders saying that all types of attacks were down to levels not seen before the February 2006 bombing of a Shiite shrine in the town of Samarra that triggered a wave of violence.
The bloodshed that erupted after the shrine attack peaked in January 2007 with 1,992 deaths reported by the three ministries.
The jump in February's toll seems to have been caused by two major attacks during the month.
On February 1, at least 98 people were slaughtered when a female suicide bomber blew herself up amid a crowd of pet lovers in Baghdad's popular al-Ghazl animal market.
And in another brazen attack last Sunday, at least 48 people were killed when a suicide bomber blew himself up in a crowd of pilgrims at a rest stop in the town of Iskandiriyah, south of Baghdad.
US officials blamed both bombings on the Al-Qaeda in Iraq group.
The pilgrims were on their way to the central shrine city of Karbala for the holy ceremony of Arbaeen, one of Shiite Islam's holiest days.
The reduction in the violence during the six months to January was attributed to a "surge" of an extra 30,000 US troops in Iraq, the formation by Sunni leaders of anti-Qaeda fronts, and Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's freezing of the activities of his Mahdi Army militia.
US President George W. Bush's controversial strategy to send extra troops is seen as the key factor in stifling the violence.
For the first time since the end of the US-led war in 2003, it saw US troops not just clearing restive neighbourhoods, but also setting up outposts and retaining the cleared areas to prevent insurgents from returning.
Following the drop in violence since the middle of last year and because of sustained domestic pressure from Democrats, Bush late in 2007 signalled a cut-back in the level of troops deployed in Iraq.
US Defence Secretary Robert Gates has said that US forces in Iraq would be reduced to 100,000 by the end of 2008 from the current 158,000.
But last month he said there could be a temporary halt in the reduction of troop numbers, although on Saturday the Washington Post reported that the Bush administration would go ahead with the drawback plans.
Citing an unnamed senior administration official, the paper said the temporary halt, announced by Gates, would last just four to six weeks next summer to assess conditions on the ground.
"This is not a stall tactic," The Post quoted the official as saying. "I fully expect further reductions this year, in '08, and so does the president. It's just a question of when will the reductions be announced, when will they take effect... and what will be the pace."
The official could not predict how many more troops might be pulled out by the end of Bush's term in January 2009, however.
Copyright © AFP 2008