355 Iraqis killed in April

BAGHDAD: A total of 355 Iraqis were killed in violence in April, official figures showed on Friday, making it the bloodiest period in the war-battered country in seven months.

Statistics compiled by the defence, interior and health ministries showed that 290 civilians, 24 soldiers and 41 policemen were killed in April across Iraq, and that the total number of wounded was 747.

The death toll was 40 percent higher than in March because of a wave of attacks, including six car bombs that rocked the Iraqi capital at rush hour on April 29, killing more than 50 people and wounding dozens more.

The deadliest attacks targeted busy markets in Baghdad's sprawling eastern slum of Sadr City, where three car bombs exploded in the late afternoon as residents including women and children made their way home.

The synchronised bombings recalled attacks on crowded Shiite areas at the height of Iraq's sectarian fighting in 2006, which provoked the revenge killing of thousands of Sunni men by Shiite death squads.

Last week at least 140 people were killed in just 24 hours as suicide attackers targeted areas packed with civilians in Baghdad and a restaurant full of Iranian pilgrims northeast of the capital.

In the deadliest attack this year, two female suicide bombers struck a major Shiite shrine in Baghdad, killing at least 58 people, on April 25. Another suicide bomber killed 28 people who had been receiving food aid in the city.

A day earlier a suicide bomber massacred 56 people, including 52 Iranian pilgrims, at the restaurant in restive Diyala province.

The brutal spike in attacks came only two months before US troops are to withdraw from Iraqi cities, under a military accord between Baghdad and Washington that will see American soldiers leave Iraq completely by 2011.

The US military has said that the recent bombings were meant to trigger the kind of confessional strife that swept Iraq in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion.

The attacks have raised security fears of a resurgence in violence as the Iraqi army has moved to decapitate militant groups, including loyalists to the defunct regime of former dictator Saddam Hussein, linked to Al-Qaeda.

Last week the military announced the arrest of the elusive Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, said to be the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq. The government said that April 29's coordinated attacks came in response to his arrest.

The government's figures also showed 831 Iraqis were arrested last month.

Since the beginning of the year 1,056 people have been killed in Iraq, mostly civilians. Nevertheless, the monthly toll for April was significantly lower than last September when 440 Iraqis were killed.

Security has improved dramatically since 2007, when Iraqi and US forces launched offensives against Al-Qaeda with the help of local US-financed and trained militias.

However, attacks still remain all too common in Baghdad, in confessionally divided Diyala province and around the main northern city of Mosul, which is split between Sunni Arabs, Christians and Kurds.

In January 2007 alone, 1,992 civilians, 40 soldiers and 55 police were killed. In 2008, 6,772 Iraqis were killed countrywide.

Meanwhile 18 US soldiers also died last month, the highest toll since September, bringing to 4,281 the number of American losses since the invasion, according to an AFP count based on the independent website icasualties.org.