CAN the extra 20'000 US troops destined for Iraq make a significant difference to the loss of life in that benighted country? Yesterday the United Nations Office in Iraq said that 34'352 civilians lost their lives in 2006 and a similar number were wounded. These appalling figures were immediately challenged by the Iraqi government which said that last year's civilian death toll was 12'357. That is also an appalling figure and it seems pointless to argue about which is correct. Yesterday 62 people, mostly young women, were killed by a suicide bomber at a Baghdad university while another 25 victims were counted following an explosion in central Baghdad. There seems no end to it. Although US forces are still responsible for a small number of deaths in Iraq by far the greater proportion is the result of Shi'ite militias wreaking vengeance on members of the Sunni community for the attack on the Shi'ite mosquE in Sammara almost one year ago. The UN blamed “revenge killings, lack of accountability for past crimes, as well as the growing sense of impunity for human rights violations” when it presented its figures yesterday.

If the extra US troops can strengthen the ability of Iraqi forces to root out militia cells in Baghdad and block their access to weapons, President Bush's initiative will have been worthwhile. But the lingering doubt is whether any improvement could survive the eventual departure or substantial reduction of US forces. It is still likely to be a very long haul.


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