U.S. says suicide bombings down, points to joint operations west of Baghdad

A thousand Shiite and Sunni Muslims prayed together Friday in a demonstration of unity in central Baghdad ahead of potentially divisive parliamentary elections and following years of sectarian violence. After midday prayers, the two groups held a demonstration whey they were united in their denunciation of military and police raids and widespread arrests of people suspected of participating in the insurgency.

Men waved Iraqi flags and women dressed in black robes carried posters of their missing sons. Some protesters held up portraits of Sunni clerics that have been in killed since the U.S. invasion in 2003.

Shiites make up the majority in Iraq, but were oppressed by former ruler Saddam Hussein, who is a Sunni. Since Saddam's overthrow, Shiites have controlled most of the political power in Iraq, while the anti-U.S. insurgency has been dominated by Sunnis.

Sunni leaders have also complained of attacks by Shiite death squads with ties to the government. Sunni suicide bombers have targeted Shiite mosques and gatherings. The discovery by U.S. troops more than two weeks ago of an interior ministry jail filled with 173 detainees, some showing signs of torture.

"The Interior Ministry is killing our sons at the orders of the (Iranians)," one poster read, referring to alleged ties between minister Bayn Jabr and Iran. Another poster referred to Jabr as an American agent. The U.S. command in Iraq said Thursday that suicide bombings fell in November to their lowest level in seven months, citing the success of U.S.-Iraqi military operations against insurgent and foreign fighter sanctuaries near the Syrian border.

But the trend in Iraq has not resulted in less bloodshed: 85 U.S. troops died during the month, one of the highest tolls since the invasion.

In Ramadi, 70 miles (112 kilometers) west of Baghdad, the U.S. military played down reports by residents and police of widespread attacks Thursday against American and Iraqi installations in the city. The military said only one rocket-propelled grenade was fired at an observation post, causing no casualties. Insurgents left behind posters and graffiti saying they were members of al-Qaida in Iraq. Nevertheless, Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, a coalition operations officer, warned that al-Qaida in Iraq, led by Jordanian terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, will likely step up attacks in the next two weeks to try to disrupt parliamentary elections Dec. 15.

Lynch told reporters that suicide bombings declined to 23 in November as U.S. and Iraqi forces were overrunning insurgent strongholds in the Euphrates River valley west of the capital. Communities along the river are believed used by foreign fighters, who slip into the country from Syria and travel down the river highway to Baghdad and other cities.

Lynch called suicide bombings the insurgents' "weapon of choice" because they can inflict a high number of casualties while sacrificing only the attacker. Classic infantry ambushes draw withering American return fire, resulting in heavy insurgent losses. "In the month of November: only 23 suicide attacks, the lowest we've seen in the last seven months, the direct result of the effectiveness of our operations," Lynch said.

Car bombings, parked along streets and highways and detonated remotely, have declined from 130 in February to 68 in November, Lynch said.

However, suicide attacks have not consistently decreased over the past year. After more than 70 such attacks in May, the number fell in August by nearly half and then climbed to over 50 two months later. And despite the decline over the past month, there has been no letup in the relentless toll of American deaths at a time of growing discontent in the United States over the Iraq war.

The U.S. command said Thursday that four American service members were killed the day before, three of them from hostile action and the fourth in a traffic accident. The deaths raised the American fatality toll for November to at least 85.

That was down from the 96 American deaths suffered in October, the fourth deadliest month since the war began in March 2003. But it was well above the 49 deaths in September. U.S. monthly death tolls have hit 80 or above during 10 of the 33 months of the war, reports the AP. I.L.

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