July deadliest month for Iraqis in 2 years with more than 500 dead

BAGHDAD (AP) — July was Iraq's deadliest month in more than two years, according to new official figures, suggesting that a resilient insurgency is successfully taking advantage of a months long deadlock in forming a new government.

The figures released late Saturday show that 535 people were killed last month, the highest since May 2008 when 563 were killed, heightening concerns over Iraq's precarious security situation even as the U.S. troops are reducing their numbers.

Iraq has been mired in a political deadlock for nearly five months since a March parliamentary election failed to produce a clear winner.

The political impasse further deepened this weekend, when a Shiite bloc nominally allied with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's coalition publicly announced its rejection of his candidacy for a second, four-year term in office.

In an announcement read by senior Shiite politician Ahmad Chalabi on Saturday, the Iraqi National Alliance said it was also suspending contacts with al-Maliki's State of Law bloc until it puts forward another candidate for the prime minister's job. He said the merger between the two blocs, which leaves them just a few seats shy of a majority, however, remained intact.

Opposition within the alliance to al-Maliki has long been known, but the announcement was significant for its emphatic tone.

With the holy month of Ramadan scheduled to start in the second week of August, there seems to be little hope of a political breakthrough before at least mid-September.

The pace of life slows down considerably in Ramadan, when devout Muslims refrain from food, water, sex and smoking from dawn-to-dusk. This year's fast is expected to be especially challenging in view of Iraq's unforgiving summer heat.

The monthly toll was compiled by the defense, interior and health ministries also showed 1,043 people were wounded last month. Of those killed, the ministries identified 396 as civilians, 89 as policemen and 50 as soldiers.

Bombings and mortar attacks targeting Shiites on two religious pilgrimages last month, a bombing against anti-al-Qaida Sunni militiamen south of Baghdad and another that hit a Shiite mosque north of the capital killed at least 160 people and boosted the July death toll significantly.

Bombings, assassinations and gunfights remain daily occurrences in Iraq, particularly in the capital, although the overall level of violence has dramatically declined since 2008. However, concerted attacks on Shiite civilians blamed on al-Qaida militants 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 ministries.

The figures also showed that Iraqi security forces, which continue to be supported by the U.S. military in high profile operations, killed 100 insurgents and detained 955 suspected militants.

The high casualty figures point to the resilience of the insurgency seven years after it began in 2003, despite the death and capture of thousands of its fighters by U.S. and Iraqi forces.

With U.S. forces out of Iraqi cities since June last year, the insurgents seem to be focusing their attacks on Iraqi security forces and Shiite civilians.

On Thursday, al-Qaida militants killed 16 members of Iraq's security forces in a brazen, daylight attack at the northern Baghdad neighborhood of Azamiyah in what was seen as an impressive show of force by the terror network.

All but 50,000 American troops are scheduled to be out of Iraq by the end of this month as the U.S. military shifts 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.

Casualty figures for U.S. forces have mostly been in single digits in recent months, a fact that points to the diminishing visibility of the U.S. military on the ground when Iraqi security forces seem to be struggling against the insurgency and Washington determined to stick to its withdrawal timetable.

According to an Associated Press count, four U.S. troops were killed in July, only one of them in combat.