BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The number of U.S. soldiers killed in combat in Iraq has dropped sharply this month, putting July on track to have the lowest casualties for the military since the U.S.-led invasion of the country in 2003.
Five U.S. soldiers have been killed in combat in Iraq so far in July compared to 66 in the same month last year, according to the independent Web site icasualties.org, which keeps records of U.S. military casualties in the conflict.
The drop underscores the dramatic fall in violence in Iraq to lows not seen since early 2004.
Deployment of additional U.S. troops to Iraq last year, a decision by Sunni Arab tribal leaders to turn against al Qaeda and a ceasefire imposed by Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr on his Mehdi Army are all factors credited with the reduced violence.
The U.S. combat death toll in July is down from 23 in June and 15 in May, the icasualties.org data showed.
Overall in July, nine U.S. soldiers have died in Iraq. The other four were from non-hostile incidents such as accidents.
Total U.S. military deaths were 29 in June and 19 in May, also taking into account non-hostile events.
The numbers contrast with the conflict in Afghanistan, where more U.S. soldiers were killed in May and June compared to Iraq. There are 144,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and 36,000 in Afghanistan.
Around 4,120 U.S. soldiers have died in Iraq since the invasion. The number in Afghanistan stands at 561 since the Taliban government was toppled in 2001.
The Iraq and Afghanistan wars are key issues in the U.S. presidential election campaign.
Democratic candidate Barack Obama wants to shift the focus of U.S. military efforts from Iraq to Afghanistan.
He has pledged to withdraw U.S. combat troops from Iraq in 16 months from taking office in January if he is elected.
That would free up resources for Afghanistan, where the Taliban and al Qaeda are resurgent.
His Republican rival John McCain also says more soldiers need to be sent to Afghanistan. The Bush administration has agreed to send an undisclosed number of extra troops next year.
Despite the overall plunge in violence in Iraq, four suicide bombers killed almost 60 people on Monday, underscoring the fragility of security gains.
Editing by Dean Yates