updated 9/1/2007 11:38:35 PM ET 2007-09-02T03:38:35

Civilian deaths rose in August to their second-highest monthly level this year, according to figures compiled Saturday by The Associated Press. That raises questions about whether U.S. strategy is working days before Congress receives landmark reports that will decide the course of the war.

At least 81 American service members also died in Iraq during August — an increase of two over the previous month but well below the year’s monthly high of 126 in May. American deaths surpassed the 80 mark during only two months of 2006.

U.S. military officials have insisted that the security plan launched early this year led to a decrease in attacks on civilians and sectarian killings, especially in the Baghdad area, which was the focus of the new strategy.

The top American commander, Gen. David Petraeus, is expected to cite security improvements when he and Ambassador Ryan Crocker submit reports on progress toward stability and national reconciliation to Congress during the week of Sept. 10.

However, figures compiled by the AP from police reports nationwide show that at least 1,809 civilians were killed across the country last month compared with 1,760 in July. That brings to 27,564 the number of Iraqi civilians killed since AP began collecting data on April 28, 2005.

According to the AP count, civilian deaths reached a high point during the wave of sectarian bombings, kidnappings and killings at the end of last year — 2,172 in December and 1,967 in the previous month.

Ambassador calls for patience
Crocker predicted Saturday there will be no “fundamental or quick change” in the American policy on Iraq and appealed for patience.

Speaking in Arabic on Iraqi state television, he said the U.S. administration believes Iraqis have made tangible progress — which Congress has demanded as a condition for continued U.S. support.

“Since 2003, there has been a stable policy by the American administration and I don’t think there will be a fundamental or quick change in the American policy or stand on Iraq,” he said.

“After 35 years of injustice under Saddam Hussein, there are some problems since liberation and the problems of 40 years cannot be solved in a year or two. What is important is that there is progress,” he said.

President Bush ordered nearly 30,000 additional troops to Iraq, and monthly death tolls began to decline after the new security plan was launched Feb. 14. But civilian death tolls have been creeping back toward levels approaching those during the worst of the sectarian slaughter.

AP figures show May was the deadliest month for Iraqi civilians this year, with 1,901 people killed in political or sectarian violence.

Violence down in Baghdad, Petraeus says
The August total included 520 people killed in quadruple suicide bombings on communities of Yazidis, a Kurdish-speaking religious minority, near the Syrian border.

Despite the high nationwide totals, Petraeus was quoted Friday as saying the troop increase has sharply reduced sectarian killings in Baghdad, which accounted for most of the deaths during the wave of Sunni-Shiite slaughter at the end of last year.

“It’s a bit macabre but some areas were literally on fire with hundreds of bodies every week and a total of 2,100 in the month of December ’06, Iraq-wide. It is still much too high but we think in August in Baghdad it will be as little as one-quarter of what it was,” Petraeus was quoted as saying by The Australian newspaper.

An AP partial count of Baghdad deaths between Aug. 1 and Aug. 21 showed at least 508 civilians had been killed in the capital — compared with at least 1,772 civilians slain here during December.

Deaths went down in Baghdad during August in part due to a strict vehicle ban imposed on the city during a major Shiite religious ceremony. Violence dropped dramatically during the Aug. 8-12 ban.

Hopes ride on militia standing down
Although American forces have been successful in curbing major suicide bombings, stopping small scale atrocities has proven more challenging.

On Saturday, gunmen stormed a house in the Dora district, seizing three women and a man. The gunmen killed two of the women and fled with the two other victims, a policeman said on condition of anonymity because he was not supposed to release the information.

The U.S. command expressed hope Saturday that an order by powerful Shiite militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr to stand down his Mahdi Army fighters for up to six months would curb attacks on civilians and allow American troops to step up the fight against al-Qaida.

Sunni Arab leaders have accused the Mahdi Army for massacring thousands of Sunnis during the last three years and driving tens of thousands of others from their homes.

Many Shiites see the militia as their best protection against Sunni extremists, including al-Qaida, which have carried out similar attacks on Shiites.

However, Mahdi’s credibility has been shaken by allegations of extortion, murder, robbery and other crimes committed by members who appear to be beyond the control of the youthful al-Sadr, who said he would use the six-month hiatus to restructure the force “in a way that helps honor the principles for which it was formed.”

The U.S. maintains that some of the breakaway factions, which the Americans refer to as the “special groups,” are receiving weapons, training and money from Iran, a charge the Iranians deny.

Leaflets scattered around Sadr City urged people to report on Shiite militants who are cooperating with the Iranians.

“The criminal Iraqis who work with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards are toys under Persian control,” read one of the leaflets, which pictured a puppet dancing on strings. “Iranian Revolutionary Guards are interfering in Iraq’s affairs while Iraqis are dying.”

U.K. pulling out of Basra next month?
In London, the Sunday Times reported Sunday that British forces could hand over responsibility for the southern Iraqi city of Basra as early as next month, citing unnamed government sources.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has consistently refused to set a timetable for the withdrawal of British troops from the country, but said a decision could be announced when Parliament returns from its summer break in October.

Following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, Britain controlled security across southern Iraq, but has since handed over three of four provinces to Iraqi forces. Britain’s Ministry of Defense has previously said it hopes to hand security responsibility for Basra, the last remaining province, over to Iraqi forces sometime this autumn.

No decision as to the precise timing of the hand over has been made, the ministry said in a statement.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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