While concern is rising in the U.S. about the war in Afghanistan, the Americans are anxious to show evidence of progress in their other conflict — Iraq.
New Iraqi government figures tell a different story, however, showing civilian casualties hitting their highest level in more than two years — figures the U.S. rushed on Sunday to dispute.
The rejection of the figures, compiled by the Iraqi ministries of defense, interior and health, comes at a delicate time. The American military has pronounced Iraq's security as stabilizing and is going ahead with plans to send home all but 50,000 troops by the end of the month, leaving Iraq's nascent security forces in control. The last American soldier is due to leave by the end of 2011.
Things were not much better in July for the Americans in Afghanistan — where U.S. losses were the highest for any month of the war. The monthly death toll — 66 — surpassed the previous record of 60 deaths in June. U.S. commanders have warned of more bloodshed as fighting escalates in longtime Taliban strongholds.
Moreover, at least 270 Afghan civilians were killed in the July fighting and nearly 600 wounded — a 29 percent increase over the previous month, according to Interior Ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashary.
In Iraq, the July death toll — 532 — was the highest since May 2008 when 563 died, heightening concerns over the country's precarious security even as a political deadlock persists nearly five months after a parliamentary election produced no clear winner.
The new figures suggested that a resilient insurgency is successfully taking advantage of the political deadlock and shows the difficulties of achieving a political solution in a polarized society like Iraq's, where ethnic and religious groups compete for power regardless of where national interests lie.
More than seven years after Saddam Hussein's ouster, Iraqi politicians from these rival groups have failed to resolve key issues like sharing wealth, the extent of provincial autonomy and identity.
The U.S. military countered that its own data showed only 222 Iraqis had been killed in July. "We do our very best to be vigilant to ensure the numbers we report are as accurate as can be," spokesman Lt. Col. Bob Owen said in defense of the military's own numbers.
An Associated Press tally indicated that at least 350 Iraqis were killed in July, but this figure is considered a minimum, based on AP reporting. The actual number is likely higher, as many killings go unreported or uncounted.
The three Iraqi ministries release casualty figures each month, but rarely if ever have they been so strongly disputed by the U.S. military as it worries about creating an image of withdrawing too soon.
The troubled transition to full Iraqi control serves as a warning for the U.S. and NATO as they pursue the same broad strategy in Afghanistan. In both countries, the war plan calls for weakening the insurgents on the battlefield while building up local forces capable of handling security while politicians pursue a political settlement.
Recent bloodshed in Iraq, where the transition is farther along, raises questions about how it will work in Afghanistan, where the challenges are far greater.
Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan has no tradition of strong central government. The country is made up of numerous ethnic groups speaking different languages with no ethnic community in the majority. Smaller groups — Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras — harbor deep grudges against the Taliban, whose support comes from the Pashtuns.
That raises the possibility that if the coalition leaves too soon, the country would descend into civil war as it did following the Soviet pullout in 1989.
In Iraq, the country's political impasse deepened this weekend, when a Shiite bloc nominally allied with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's coalition announced its rejection of his candidacy for a second term.
Late Sunday, Iraq state television released excerpts of an interview with al-Maliki, during which he said he would not insist on remaining prime minister as long as a partnership between his bloc and another Shiite coalition continues.
Al-Maliki's comments came as the Iraqi National Alliance said it was suspending contacts with al-Maliki's State of Law bloc until it put forward another candidate for the prime minister's job. The merger between the two blocs, which leaves them just a few seats shy of a majority in parliament, however, remained intact, it said.
"I will be happy and will walk behind them so that they do not mislead people into thinking that al-Maliki is the problem," al-Maliki said in the interview, to be fully aired Monday.
Bombings, assassinations and gunfights remain daily occurrences in Iraq, particularly in the capital, although the overall level of violence has dramatically declined since 2008. The concerted attacks on Shiite civilians are thought to be designed to re-ignite the sectarian strife that pushed the country to the brink of all-out civil war in 2006 and 2007.
Civilians also accounted for the overwhelming majority of the wounded in July — 680 of the 1,043. There were also 165 soldiers and 198 policemen among the wounded, according to the three ministries.
With U.S. forces out of Iraqi cities since June last year, insurgents seem to be focusing their attacks on Iraqi security forces and Shiite civilians. Of those killed in July, 89 were policemen and 50 soldiers.
U.S. soldiers have largely been left alone and their casualties have mostly been in the single digits recently, a fact that points to their diminishing role on the ground.
When all but 50,000 American troops are left in Iraq by the end of this month, the U.S. military will shift its mission from warfare to training Iraqi security forces. The U.S. military said late last month that troop levels in Iraq had dropped to below 65,000.
According to an AP count, four U.S. troops were killed in July.
Associated Press writers Robert H. Reid in Kabul and Lara Jakes in Baghdad contributed to this report.
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