Iraq monthly death toll down in February

BAGHDAD Sat Mar 2, 2013 1:44pm GMT

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Militants killed 136 Iraqis in February, fewer than the previous month, as the country continues to grapple with insurgents just over a year after U.S. troops withdrew, health ministry figures showed on Saturday.

The country's precarious sectarian and ethnic balance has come under growing strain from the conflict in neighbouring Syria, which is whipping up tensions between Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims in Iraq and the wider Middle East.

The figures showed 88 civilians, 22 soldiers and 26 policemen were killed last month. A further 228 people were wounded. In January, the death toll was 177.

Authorities said 33 militants were killed by security forces in February.

The worst day of violence was on the eighth of the month, when car bombs exploded in Shi'ite Muslim areas across the country, killing at least 34 people in attacks claimed by al Qaeda's affiliate in Iraq.

Sunni militants often target members of the Shi'ite majority to which Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki belongs, in a bid to undermine the government and provoke more intercommunal strife.

Last year, a total of 4,471 civilians died in what rights group Iraq Body Count described as a "low-level war" with insurgents - the first annual climb in the death toll in three years.

(Reporting by Kareem Raheem; Writing by Raheem Salman; Editing by Isabel Coles and Andrew Roche)

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