Civilian Death Rate Up in Iraq

BAGHDAD -- Fighting between security forces and Shiite militiamen last month has driven civilian deaths in Iraq to their highest level in more than six months, government figures showed on Tuesday.

A total of 923 civilians were killed in March, up 31 percent from February and the deadliest month since August 2007, according to data compiled by Iraq's interior, defense and health ministries and obtained by Reuters.

The figures are a blow to the Iraqi government and the United States, which have pointed to reduced overall levels of violence in recent months as evidence that a major security offensive has made significant progress.

Hundreds of people were killed and many more wounded in last week's fighting after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ordered a crackdown on Shiite militiamen in the southern city of Basra. Many of the dead were civilians caught in the crossfire.

Basra was relatively calm for a second straight day Tuesday after Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called his fighters off the streets on Sunday. A Reuters reporter in the city said more shops were open and people were out on the streets although many schools and government offices were still shut.

In Baghdad's Sadr City, the slum of 2 million people that forms the cleric's main stronghold in the capital and location of much of last week's combat, the situation was tense but there were no reports of major clashes.