At least 29 U.S. troops died while serving in Iraq in February, the third-lowest monthly casualty toll for the U.S. military since the American-led invasion in 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
Troop fatalities declined from 40 in January, and also dropped steeply from February 2007, when at least 81 troops died in Iraq.
But Iraqi casualties increased compared with January, although violence was reduced substantially from a year ago.
The AP count revealed at least 739 Iraqi security forces and civilians were either killed or found dead last month, up from 610 in January, which had the lowest monthly death toll since the end of 2005.
In February 2007, at least 1,801 Iraqis were killed.
The statistics on casualties are considered a minimum, and are based on AP reporting. The actual number is likely higher, as many killings go unreported or uncounted.
Three factors are widely credited with reducing violence in Iraq over the past six months: an increase in U.S. troop levels; a cease-fire by radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia; and the decision by tens of thousands of Sunni fighters to accept U.S. funding and turn against al Qaeda in Iraq.
At least 3,973 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to the AP's count. The figure includes eight military civilians. At least 3,237 died as a result of hostile action, according to the military's numbers.
Since the invasion of Iraq, only two months have had a lighter U.S. death tolls than February, the AP found. They were last December, when 23 deaths were reported, and the month of February 2004, when 20 American troops died. Last month's troop fatalities included three non-combat deaths.
Insurgent Leader Apprehended
The U.S. military announced the capture Saturday of an insurgent leader who was recruiting and training women, including his wife, to wrap themselves in explosives and blow themselves up - the latest sign that al Qaeda in Iraq plans to keep using women to carry out suicide attacks.
The military said the man was arrested Thursday in an operation near the town of Kan Bani Sad, north of Baghdad in Diyala province - still an al Qaeda hotbed.
"The ringleader was a man trying to recruit women to carry out SVEST (suicide vest) bombings. The cell leader used his wife and another woman, to act as carriers of his next SVEST attack," the military said.
Women have recently been used more frequently by al Qaeda in Iraq as bombers, with six attacks or attempted attacks this year alone, according to U.S. military statistics. That's out of a total of 19 such attacks since the U.S.-led invasion began in 2003, Rear Adm. Gregory Smith said in a recent briefing.
The latest included two women with a history of psychiatric treatment who killed about 100 people at pet markets in Baghdad on Feb. 1.
It remains unclear if al Qaeda has begun using women because it has been unable to recruit new insurgents or because they are more difficult to detect.
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