BAGHDAD - The number of Iraqi security forces killed in September rose by nearly a third to 159 compared with the same period last year, Associated Press figures showed Tuesday. U.S. troop deaths for the same period fell by nearly 40 percent to 25.
The figures are a sign that U.S. military is increasingly relying on the Iraqis, including U.S.-allied Sunni fighters, to take the lead in operations so they can assume responsibility for their own security and let the Americans eventually withdraw.
Overall civilian casualty figures remained relatively low despite a spate of deadly attacks in Baghdad and surrounding areas during the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan, which ends Tuesday for Sunnis and Thursday for most Shiites.
But even as Iraqi security forces are taking the lead and violence in the country has plunged some 80 percent over the past 15 months, cautious Pentagon leaders have resisted calls for more rapid and hefty troop pullouts. Instead, top commanders insist the security situation remains fragile, and the improvements reversible.
One potential source of conflict comes this week, when the Shiite-led government begins to assume authority over tens of thousands of Sunni fighters who turned against al-Qaida in Iraq.
Six U.S. Army brigades, a National Guard unit, and three military headquarters have been ordered to deploy to Iraq next summer, the Pentagon announced Tuesday, in a move that would allow the U.S. to keep the number of troops largely steady there through much of next year.
There are now about 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. At least 4,176 members of the U.S. military have died in the Iraq war since it began in March 2003, according to an AP count.
In the latest attack on U.S. troops, an American soldier was killed by small-arms fire Tuesday in northern Baghdad — one of only eight U.S. deaths during fighting in September. The rest were a result of noncombat incidents, including seven who died in a helicopter crash and several in vehicle accidents.
That was in sharp contrast to the number of Iraqi security forces who were killed in attacks.
At least 159 Iraqi police, soldiers and Sunni armed guards who have joined forces with the Americans against al-Qaida in Iraq were killed in September, 33 percent more than the 120 killed in September 2007, according to AP figures that are based on reports from police and hospital officials.
"You have more security forces taking a more active role and they're more likely to be in harm's way," said John Pike, a defense analyst and director of GlobalSecurity.org.
Col. Jerry O'Hara, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, lauded the efforts of the Iraqi security forces and the Sunni groups known as the Sons of Iraq.
"The efforts of the Iraqi security forces and the Sons of Iraq are two of the biggest factors in the increase in security," he said in an e-mailed statement.
At least 503 Iraqis were killed in September, a more than 50 percent drop compared with 1,023 reported last September, according to AP figures. That was a slight increase from the 475 Iraqi deaths in August.
Thirty-two percent of those killed were security forces, compared with 12 percent of the total figure last September, the AP figures showed.
"As long as the civilian numbers stay low compared to a year ago I would say that you're on the right course," Pike said. "An increase in Iraqi security force casualties is an unavoidable consequence of the reduction in the American combat role."
Iraqi Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf agreed.
"Iraqi forces are now on the front lines and they do most of the raiding, attacking and chasing of terrorists," he said. "Now, the Iraqi security forces are more exposed, but also more capable of confronting terrorism."
Many Iraqis were hopeful for peace as they looked forward to the Eid al-Fitr holiday, which ends the Ramadan holy month.
About 15,000 worshipers gathered at sunrise Tuesday at Baghdad's revered Abu Hanifa shrine in the former insurgent stronghold of Azamiyah, a heavily guarded area that has been surrounded by a concrete wall. U.S.-allied Sunni fighters stood guard outside the shrine and the nearby cemetery.
"We are happy that we can leave our houses to perform prayers and visit our late beloved ones as we were not able to do so the past," said Umm Ammar, a 54-year-old resident. "We pray to God that we will keep living in such atmosphere with security all over the country."
But others expressed concern about the Ramadan violence.
In the latest attack, a bombing in a car parked outside a kebab restaurant in the mostly Shiite commercial district of Karradah in central Baghdad killed at least three people, U.S. and Iraqi officials said.
"Before Ramadan, things were getting better, but then it started deteriorating. We do not want things to get as bad as they were before," said Haider Khadhim, a 28-year-old government worker in Baghdad. "We are all brothers, Sunnis and Shiites. There is no difference. We all wish things would improve."
In Mosul, a northern city which remains a security challenge, men in long white robes filled mosques.
"People in mosques pray for peace on this sacred day," said Ahmed Abdul Rahman, 45-year-old photography shop owner. "The situation these days in Mosul does not allow for strolling in the streets in any area or traveling long distances."