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U.S. commanders encouraged by drop in U.S. deaths in Iraq

  • Story Highlights
  • NEW: Suicide car bomb kills at least 12, wounds 17 in busy Baghdad square
  • At least 76 U.S. troops died in Iraq in July, a marked drop from previous months
  • U.S. military spokesman: Lower death toll may be payoff from troop buildup
  • The number of Iraqi civilian and military deaths rose in July
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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- The U.S. military is expressing hope that the recent troop buildup in Iraq is making strides as commanders point to the American death toll in the war zone -- the lowest monthly total since November.

As of Wednesday, 77 U.S. troops were killed in July, a striking drop from earlier this year when spring brought the worst three-month period for U.S. troop deaths since the war began: 104 in April, 126 in May and 101 in June.

"Any time you are talking about coalition forces being safe, we gladly welcome that and hope to see it continue as a trend, that due to our operations the level of violence and level of attacks against coalition forces goes down," said U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, according to Reuters.

"We said at the beginning of the summer, it's going to get harder before it gets easier. Now we hope to see that payoff."

Still, July's U.S. death toll is almost twice as high as for the same period last year -- 43 fatalities -- a sign of the persistent violence in the long conflict. The numbers come from a CNN count of Pentagon figures. Video Watch CNN's Dan Rivers examine whether the troop buildup is working »

At least 79 Iraqi soldiers were killed in July, compared with 31 in June, the Ministry said.

There's also concern about the Iraqi death toll, which rose in July. At least 1,653 civilians were killed in July, the Iraqi Interior Ministry told CNN on Tuesday. The number had dipped to 1,227 last month.

Violence early Wednesday drove the overall Iraqi civilian death toll higher when a suicide car bomb killed at least 12 people in a busy square in Baghdad's central Karrada district, according to Iraq's Interior Ministry. The blast also wounded at least 17 people and damaged five civilian cars, the ministry said.

Also, police found 44 bodies scattered across Baghdad on Monday and Tuesday, the Iraqi Interior Ministry said. The bodies -- believed to result from Sunni-Shiite sectarian fighting -- bring the number of corpses found in Baghdad in July to 612.

Since the completion of the U.S. troop buildup known as the "surge" last month, U.S. and Iraqi forces have launched operations in dangerous "belts" around Baghdad -- in Diyala, in sprawling Anbar province west of the capital, and in areas in and near southern Baghdad.

Meanwhile, American troops are reportedly also changing tactics in the way they patrol Iraq. Soldiers are spending less time in large military posts and instead are operating out of small, forward bases to work more closely with Iraqi forces, Reuters reported.

Adm. Michael G. Mullen, the nominee to head the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the increase of U.S. troops in Iraq this year has improved security in Iraq.

"Security is better. Not great, but better," Mullen told lawmakers Tuesday during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Mullen also stressed the solution to the conflict cannot solely be military.

"I believe security is critical to providing the government of Iraq the breathing space it needs to work toward political national reconciliation and economic growth, which are themselves critical to a stable Iraq," he said.

"Barring that, no amount of troops and no amount of time will make much of a difference."

The Pentagon announced Tuesday the next scheduled rotation of U.S. troops to Iraq. It's not designed to maintain the 20 brigades of the "surge," the Department of Defense said.

The rotation will allow the military to maintain the current level of 15 combat brigades in Iraq, serving tours of duty lasting 15 months.

Under the plan, about 20,000 Army and Marine Corps frontline combat units are scheduled to begin deploying late this year and into 2008. It has been widely acknowledged among the military that under the current deployment scenario, there are not enough U.S. forces to maintain the troop increase after spring 2008.

A U.S. Apache AH-64 helicopter was forced to land Tuesday in Baghdad after coming under attack by ground fire, the U.S. military said. The military described the incident as a "precautionary landing" east of the New Baghdad district.

Another aircraft successfully evacuated the crew of the attacked chopper, according to the military. Crew members were taken to a medical facility for a routine evaluation, officials said.

The U.S. military also offered details Tuesday of U.S.-led coalition raids targeting al Qaeda in Iraq militants in three locations: Mosul, west of Baghdad and in Tarmiya. Coalition forces arrested nine people in the raids, which took place Monday and Tuesday, the U.S. military said.

The military said detainees captured in the raid included an alleged emir with al Qaeda in Iraq who is suspected of running a "terrorist cell" responsible for rocket attacks and roadside bombings against coalition and Iraqi troops.

Also Tuesday, Iraqi and U.S. security forces detained 13 suspected militants in eastern Iraq, the U.S. military said.

The location was in the Mandali area of Diyala province, and the prime target was a top member of al Qaeda in Iraq, who was among those those detained, the military said.

Other developments

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  • A U.S. Marine assigned to Multi-National Force-West was killed Monday during combat operations in Anbar province, the U.S. military said. The number of U.S. military personnel killed in the Iraq war stands at 3,655, including seven civilian contractors of the Defense Department.
  • Two unmanned aerial vehicles have crashed in Iraq in the past two days. An Air Force MQ-1 Predator "crashed off base" Tuesday evening in an incident that "appears to be due to mechanical failure," the U.S. military said. Another MQ-1 Predator crashed Monday while landing at Balad Air Base. That crash also "does not appear to be from hostile activity," the U.S. military said.
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    Reuters contributed to this report.

    All About Al Qaeda in IraqAH-64 Apache HelicopterBaghdad

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