BAGHDAD - The number of Iraqi civilians killed in violence fell by half in 2009 to about 4,500 but improvements in security have slowed and large-scale attacks took a major toll last year, a study has found.
Human rights group Iraq Body Count (IBC) put the 2009 civilian death toll in Iraq up to December 16 at 4,497, the lowest since the 2003 invasion and less than half the 2008 toll of 9,226.
Unlike 2008, the decline in violent deaths seemed to stagnate in 2009 -- the first half and the second half of the year had roughly similar figures, the group said in a report released on Friday.
U.S. and Iraqi officials have hailed the dramatic drop in violence from the height of sectarian killing in 2006 and 2007.
According to U.S. military figures, violence peaked in late 2006 and early 2007 with up to about 1,700 attacks a week.
That was a far cry from late summer 2009, when about 200 attacks a week were recorded.
Still, the report noted troubling trends, such as a rise during 2009 in the toll from large-scale bombings, killing more than 50 civilians each. In 2008, 534 people were killed in nine such attacks compared with 750 in eight attacks in 2009.
Iraq is clearly suffering more daily violence from terrorism and instability than any other country, considerably more violence even than Afghanistan and Pakistan, said John Sloboda, the group's co-founder and spokesman.
He said that, despite Iraqi authorities' inability to stop a constant drumbeat of violence, there was complacency among Western politicians and Western commentators who kind of imply that Iraq is solved.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who has staked his reputation on turning around Iraq's security situation, is struggling to contain recriminations arising from a series of coordinated attacks targeting government facilities, the latest of which killed up to 112 people in December.
Attacks continued outside the capital, too. In Ramadi, the capital of the western province of Anbar, at least 25 people were killed on Wednesday in what appeared to be an attempt to assassinate the provincial governor.
The attacks add fuel to Iraqis' fears that violence will increase again before national elections on March 7 and beyond as U.S. troops prepare to halt combat operations by next autumn and withdraw entirely by the end of 2011.
The U.S. administration is increasingly looking toward the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan as it prepares to cut its troop numbers in Iraq to 50,000 by the end of August from about 115,000 now.
IBC, whose figures are based on cross-checked media accounts, and reports from hospitals, morgues and civil society groups, puts the overall civilian death toll since the 2003 invasion at between 94,939 and 103,588.
Its numbers are considerably higher than those provided by the Iraqi government. On Thursday, the Health Ministry said 306 civilians were killed in December, bringing the total of civilians killed by violence in 2009 to 2,773.
About 3,700 foreign soldiers have been killed in combat in Iraq since the war began, according to www.icasualties.org, which tracks casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan.
That toll has fallen sharply, too, especially as remaining U.S. soldiers spend more time confined to their bases and Iraqi forces take the lead on security.
(Editing by Andrew Dobbie)