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Pentagon: Rising insurgent attacks hurt civilians most

Story Highlights

• NEW: Pentagon report released Monday says insurgent attacks up
• NEW: Report covers mid-August to mid-November
• NEW: Most often civilians suffer from insurgent violence, report finds
• NEW: Mehdi Army cited as "most dangerous accelerant" of sectarian violence
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Attacks by Iraqi insurgents and sectarian militias jumped 22 percent from mid-August to mid-November, according to a Pentagon report released Monday.

And Iraqi civilians suffered the bulk of the casualties, it said.

The quarterly report, required by Congress since 2005, also concludes that Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army has replaced al Qaeda's Iraqi terrorist network as "the most dangerous accelerant" of the sectarian violence plaguing Iraq for nearly a year.

The average number of attacks reported each week jumped from nearly 800 to almost 1,000 in the most recent report. (Watch the misery in Iraq Video)

It spans the three months from mid-August to mid-November.

The report's release comes the same day Robert Gates was sworn in as defense secretary to replace Donald Rumsfeld, and as President Bush ponders major changes in the nearly 4-year-old war. (Full story)

The number of attacks recorded in September and October were the highest on record, the report found, but it provided no specific figures.

Nearly 70 percent of attacks targeted U.S. and allied troops, "but the overwhelming majority of casualties were suffered by Iraqis," the report concluded.

Bombings, shootings and execution-style sectarian killings have killed thousands of Iraqis in the past three months. Much of the reported increase in violence was blamed on a "seasonal spike" accompanying the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, U.S. commanders reported.

Insurgents have launched Ramadan offensives against American troops since the 2003 invasion that toppled former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Though the Pentagon said the violence is damaging Iraq's government and society, it discounted the U.S. debate over whether the country has descended into civil war.

"The situation in Iraq is far more complex than the term 'civil war' implies," it said. "Attempts to define the several and diverse sources of violence as civil war are not helpful to Iraqi efforts to arrive at political accommodations.

"However, conditions that could lead to civil war do exist, especially in and around Baghdad, and concern regarding civil war runs high among the Iraqi populace."

But, "The Iraqi institutions of the center are holding, and members of the current government have not openly abandoned the political process."

The number of recorded attacks includes attacks on U.S., coalition and Iraqi troops and police, civilians and infrastructure.

The reporting period covers the second phase of the joint U.S.-Iraqi operation dubbed "Operation Together Forward."

The operation was aimed at cracking down on the Sunni-Shiite killings that leave Baghdad streets littered daily with dumped bodies, many of them showing signs of torture.

Though the push led to a "significant reduction of death squad activity" in early phases, sectarian killings picked up in other areas -- sometimes with the help of police, "who facilitated freedom of movement and provided advance warning of upcoming operations."

"This is a major reason for the increased levels of murders and executions," the report found.

The report also found that sectarian militias continue to influence the Iraqi police in Baghdad and other cities, but did not quantify the extent of that infiltration.

Iraq's Interior Ministry, which oversees the national police force, has so far been unable to root out corruption and sectarian influence.

"Although the primary concern of the Government of Iraq remains the Sunni insurgency, the inappropriate tolerance of and influence exerted by Shia militia members within the MOI [Ministry of Interior] is also of concern," the report said.

The two most prominent militias -- the Mehdi Army and the Badr Organization -- are armed wings of Shiite political parties whose support is crucial to the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

The Mehdi Army in particular "exerts significant influence in Baghdad and the southern provinces of Iraq and on the government of Iraq," and fights periodic battles with Badr supporters, according to the report.

Defense Department officials continue to note that most of the violence occurs in four of Iraq's 18 provinces -- the capital, Baghdad, and the Sunni Arab-dominated provinces of Anbar, Salaheddin and Diyala to the north and west.

Those four provinces are home to more than a third of Iraq's population.

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