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Baghdad offensive cuts sectarian death toll
British solders ride on a vehicle during a joint patrol with Iraqi soldiers in a village in Basra, 550 km (340 miles) south of Baghdad, February 17
On any given day in Baghdad, Iraqi police can be expected to report finding up to 50 bodies shot, tortured and dumped in the streets of the capital, but on Saturday only five were found, police said on Sunday.

It was the most dramatic sign yet that a stepped-up military offensive by more than 110,000 Iraqi and U.S security forces is, at least for now, curbing the sectarian violence that has turned the city's streets into killing fields.

There has been a relative lull in sectarian attacks since Operation Imposing Law, seen as a last-ditch attempt to avert all-out civil war, began a few days ago.

Police normally report finding between 40 and 50 bodies a day in Baghdad, but Saturday's toll was one of the lowest since the bombing of a Shi'ite shrine in Samarra a year ago unleashed a wave of violence that has caused tens of thousands of deaths.

U.S. officials and Sunni Arab leaders say many of the killings are carried out by death squads of the Mehdi Army militia of anti-U.S. Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

The U.S. military commander for Baghdad, Major-General Joseph Fil, said on Friday he had noted a "substantial reduction" in the number of attacks attributed to the militia.

He said it was not clear whether this was because of a power vacuum at the top. The U.S. military says Sadr has fled to Iran, although the cleric's aides say he is still in Iraq and lying low in the Shi'ite holy city of Najaf.

Sadr disavows attacks on Iraqis.

Fil said the downturn might be temporary as militants decided their next move, tempering Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's description of the operation so far as a "brilliant success."

Violence also ebbed during the early stages of previous, unsuccessful campaigns to bring calm to the capital, but insurgents quickly adapted their tactics and struck back.

Rice pushes reconciliation

Making an unannounced visit to Baghdad on Saturday, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Iraq's leaders to use any lull in violence to push ahead with national reconciliation between majority Shi'ites and minority Sunnis.

"They are off to a good start," said Rice, referring to Operation Imposing Law. "How the Iraqis use the breathing space that might provide is what is really important."

Establishing a law that equitably distributes revenues from Iraq's vast oil wealth is seen as a vital step in achieving reconciliation between factions.

Rice arrived in Baghdad a day after the U.S. House of Representatives denounced President George W. Bush's decision to send 21,500 more troops to help with the Baghdad sweep and operations in violent Anbar province. The legislators' action was a symbolic challenge to Bush's unpopular war.

On Saturday, however, for the second time in two weeks, the U.S. Senate refused to follow suit, voting 56-34 against debating a non-binding resolution criticizing the troop build-up.

The Bush administration faces growing opposition at home to the four-year-old war, in which more than 3,100 U.S. troops have been killed.

Source: Reuters

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