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ARLINGTON, Va. — High training levels and “the confidence of our soldiers” are key reasons U.S. casualties in Iraq have been lower in March than they have been for two years, according to Army Maj. Gen. James Thurman, commander of the Multi-National Division–Baghdad.

“A lot of the decline in our fatalities is the alertness and the training levels of our soldiers,” Thurman told Pentagon reporters Friday during a briefing from Iraq. “We worked very hard before we came.

“I can’t tell you how proud I am of our soldiers,” he said.

According to the Pentagon, 30 American servicemembers died in Iraq in March, the lowest number since February 2004. In fact, the number of U.S. casualties in Iraq has been falling since last November.

U.S. casualties are also dropping because attacks are dropping, said Thurman, who took command in Iraq three months ago, on Jan. 7.

“In the past week, the number of attacks in the Baghdad area [dropped] by 58 percent,” Thurman said.

However, Baghdad still remains a volatile area, said the two-star general, who is in charge of about 29,000 U.S. and coalition troops and 33,000 Iraqi army and police security forces.

Much of the violence in Baghdad is “a lot of sporadic point-and-shoot, what I call ‘intimidating indirect fire’,” Thurman said.

There are also many drive-by shootings in heavily populated areas, Thurman said.

But the most serious threat, he said, “continues to be IEDs.”

Thurman said that in the month of March, coalition forces encountered 602 IEDs, “roughly 50 percent of which were found before they detonated.”

Since the beginning of Operation Scales of Justice, the Baghdad peacekeeping mission that began after the destruction of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, U.S. and Iraqi forces have been conducting an average of 115 to 120 daily patrols and operating some 138 checkpoints throughout Thurman’s area of responsibility, Thurman said.

That 17,000-square-mile area includes Baghdad and three provinces which were added to his area of responsibility after the 4th Infantry Division took over from the 3rd Infantry Division in January: Babil, Karbala, and Najaf.

Combined with the eruption of sectarian violence following the February bombing of a revered Shiite shrine in Samarra, the shift in violence is taking a heavy toll on Iraqis, both uniformed and civilian.

In a gruesome example earlier this week, U.S. and Iraqi troops found the bodies of 13 Iraqis along a “major thoroughfare in western Baghdad,” military officials said. The bodies were spread along the road for nearly 250 feet, officials said, and there was no explanation for who the men were or why they were killed.

In another incident this week, a suspected suicide bomber attacked a recruiting station near Tal Afar, killing more than 40 Iraqis.

According to U.S. officials, there have been 955 murders or “execution-style killings” in Baghdad alone since the February shrine attack.

“In January in Baghdad, we averaged 11 murders or executions per day. They peaked at one point in time recently with an average of 36,” said U.S. spokesman Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, at his weekly Baghdad press briefing. “We have reduced that back to 25.”

Some U.S. military officials say a change in American tactics — and a larger reliance on emerging Iraqi forces — has reduced the number of U.S. deaths. In several parts of the country after the shrine attack, U.S. forces scaled back patrols and stayed on bases more than in previous months. And increasingly, Iraqi forces take the lead on search operations, with U.S. troops providing security. The consolidation of several U.S. bases and a shift to more airlift in recent months has also meant fewer U.S. convoys on Iraq’s dangerous roads.

Stars and Stripes’ Joseph Giordono contributed to this report.

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