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The number of Iraqis killed in February rose by 33 per cent over January, reversing a six-month trend of reduced violence, in a setback to the US military plan to curb the bloodshed ravaging the country.
The combined figures obtained by AFP from the interior, defence and health ministries showed that the total number of Iraqis killed in February was 721, including 636 civilians, compared with 541 dead in January.
It reverses the six-month trend of a steady fall in casualties across the country on the back of a massive US and Iraqi military assault, mainly targeting Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
The February death toll climbed after monthly tolls of 541 in January, 568 in December, 606 in November, 887 in October, 917 in September and 1,856 in August.
The number of people wounded in February was 847.
January's death toll reached a 23-month low, with US commanders saying that all types of attacks were down to levels not seen before the February 2006 bombing of a Shiite shrine in the town of Samarra that triggered a wave of violence.
The bloodshed that erupted after the shrine attack peaked in January 2007 with 1,992 deaths reported by the three ministries.
The jump in February's toll seems to have been caused by two major attacks during the month.
On February 1, at least 98 people were slaughtered when a female suicide bomber blew herself up amid a crowd of pet lovers in Baghdad's popular al-Ghazl animal market.
Another brazen suicide attack last Sunday targeted Shiite pilgrims at a rest stop in the town of Iskandiriyah, south of Baghdad, killing at least 48 people.
US officials blamed both bombings on the Al-Qaeda in Iraq group.
The reduction in the violence during the six months to January was attributed to a "surge" of an extra 30,000 US troops in Iraq, the formation by Sunni leaders of anti-Qaeda fronts, and Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's suspension of the activities of his Mahdi Army militia.
US President George W. Bush's controversial strategy to send extra troops is seen as the key factor in stifling the violence.
For the first time since the end of the US-led war in 2003, it saw US troops not just pacifying restive neighbourhoods, but also setting up outposts and retaining the pacified areas to prevent insurgents from returning.
Following the drop in violence and because of sustained domestic pressure, Bush late in 2007 signalled a cut-back in the level of troops deployed in Iraq.
US Defence Secretary Robert Gates has said that US forces in Iraq would be reduced to 100,000 by the end of 2008 from the current 158,000.
The violence continued Saturday when two people were killed and 10 wounded in an attack on Shiite pilgrims heading home from the Arbaeen religious ceremony in Karbala, police in northern Iraq said.
Gunmen ambushed the pilgrims on the highway near the town of Sarha, some 100 kilometres south of Kirkuk, said police Colonel Abbas Mohammed. Eight of those wounded were women.
Fifteeen pilgrims also returning from Karbala were kidnapped when gunmen stopped two minibuses, said police Captain Abdulrazah Mahmoud in the town of Amerli, south of Kirkuk.
The US military said its troops detained a suspected leader of a cell recruiting female suicide bombers in Diyala province northeast of Baghdad. (AFP)
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