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An Iraqi policeman inspects the wreckage of a car used in a suicide bombing on Aug. 14, a bloody day when 520 people died in four attacks. ((Emad Matti/Associated Press))

Civilian deaths in Iraq rose in August to their second-highest monthly level this year, according to figures compiled Saturday by the Associated Press.

Thetollraises questions about whether U.S. strategy is working days before Congress receives landmark reports that will help decide the course of the war.

At least 81 American service members also died in Iraq during August — an increase of two over the previous month but well below the year's monthly high of 126 in May. American deaths surpassed the 80 mark during only two months of 2006.

U.S. military officials have insisted that a security plan launched early this year has brought a decrease in attacks on civilians and sectarian killings, especially in the Baghdad area, which was the focus of the new strategy.

The top American commander, Gen. David Petraeus, is expected to cite security improvements when he and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq,submit reports on progress toward stability and national reconciliation to Congress during the week of Sept. 10.

However, figures compiled by theAssociated Pressfrom police reportsfrom across Iraqshow that at least 1,809 civilians were killed last month, compared to 1,760 in July. That brings the count of Iraqi civilians killed to 27,564 since the Associated Pressbegan collecting the data on April 28, 2005.

According to the Associated Press count, civilian deaths reached a high point during the wave of sectarian bombings, kidnappings and killings at the end of last year — 2,172 in December and 1,967 in the previous month.

U.S. won't change policy, ambassador says

Crocker predicted Saturday there will be no "fundamental or quick change" in American policy on Iraq and appealed for patience as Congress prepares to receive the reports.

Speaking in Arabic on Iraqi state television, he said the U.S. administration believes Iraqis have made tangible progress,which Congress has demanded as a condition for continued U.S. support.

"Since 2003, there has been a stable policy by the American administration and I don't think there will be a fundamental or quick change in the American policy or stand on Iraq," he said.

Crocker also said Iraqis "and the friends of Iraq" should show patience as the country grapples with its political and security crisis.

"After 35 years of injustice under Saddam Hussein, there are some problems since liberation and the problems of 40 years cannot be solved in a year or two. What is important is that there is progress," he said.

U.S. President George W. Bush ordered nearly 30,000 additional troops to Iraq early this year, and monthly death tolls began to decline after the new security plan was launched Feb. 14. But civilian death tolls have been creeping back toward the levels during the worst of the sectarian slaughter.

Associated Press figures show May was the deadliest month for Iraqi civilians this year, with 1,901 people killed in political or sectarian violence.

520 died in Yazidis bombings

The August total included 520 people killed in quadruple suicide bombings on communities of Yazidis, a Kurdish-speaking religious minority, near the Syrian border. The attacks made Aug. 14 the deadliest day since the war began in March 2003.

Despite the high nationwide totals, Petraeus was quoted Friday as saying the troop increase has sharply reduced sectarian killings in Baghdad, which accounted for most of the deaths during the wave of Sunni-Shia slaughter at the end of last year.

"If you look at Baghdad, which is hugely important because it is the centre of everything in Iraq, you can see the density plot on ethno-sectarian deaths," Petraeus was quoted by an Australian newspaper as saying.

"It's a bit macabre, but some areas were literally on fire, with hundreds of bodies every week and a total of 2,100 in the month of December '06, Iraq-wide. It is still much too high but we think in August in Baghdad it will be as little as one-quarter of what it was."

Petraeus gave no figures. An Associated Press partial count of Baghdad deaths between Aug. 1 and Aug. 21 showed at least 508 civilians had been killed in the capital, compared with at least 1,772 civilians slain there during December.

Deaths went down in Baghdad during August in part due to a strict vehicle ban imposed on the city during a major Shia religious ceremony. Violence dropped dramatically during the Aug. 8-12 ban.

Small-scale killings continue

Although American forces have been successful in curbing major suicide bombings, stopping smaller scale attacks has proven more challenging.

On Saturday, gunmen stormed a house in the Dora district, seizing three women and a man. The gunmen killed two of the women and fled with the two others, a policeman said on condition of anonymity because he was not supposed to release the information.

The U.S. command expressed hope Saturday that an order by powerful Shia militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr to stand down his Mahdi Army fighters for up to six months would curb attacks on civilians and allow American troops to step up the fight against al-Qaeda.

"If implemented, al-Sadr's order holds the prospect of allowing coalition and Iraqi security forces to intensify their focus on al-Qaeda in Iraq and on protecting the Iraqi population," the U.S. command said in a statement.

Sunni leaders have accused the Mahdi Armyof massacring thousands of Sunnis during the last three years and driving tens of thousands of others from their homes.

But many Shias see the militia as their best protection against Sunni extremists, including al-Qaeda militants, who have carried out similar attacks on Shias.

However, the Shia militia'scredibility has been shaken by allegations of extortion, murder, robbery and other crimes committed by members who appear to be beyond the control of the youthful al-Sadr, who said he would use the six-month hiatus to restructure the force "in a way that helps honour the principles for which it was formed."

The U.S. maintains that some of the breakaway factions, which the Americans refer to as the "special groups," are receiving weapons, training and money from Iran, a charge the Iranians deny.

American troops have been stepping up operations against Shia "special groups" in the Baghdad area, though the command insists that the Sunni al-Qaeda remains the top priority.