US troop deaths in Iraq 'at 4-year low'


US troop deaths in Iraq were today reported to have fallen to their lowest level last month since the 2003 invasion as officials said oil production rose in May to a post-war high.

The US military said 19 soldiers died in May, the lowest monthly death toll in a five-year-old war that has so far killed more than 4,000 American soldiers.

The number of Iraqi civilians killed in May also fell, to 505, after reaching a seven-month high of 968 in April, figures compiled by the interior, defence and health ministries showed.

Oil minister Hussein al-Shahristani said the improved security had helped Iraq, which has the world's third-largest oil reserves, raise oil production to a post-war high of 2.5 million barrels per day in May.

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Iraq's oil minister credited better security for the two milestones, which appear to show a dramatic turnabout in the fortunes of a country on the brink of sectarian civil war 12 months ago.

"We've still got a distance to go but I think lower casualty rates are a reflection of some real progress," Mr Gates said. "The key will be to continue to sustain the progress we have seen."

US generals have stressed that the security gains are both fragile and reversible. That was shown in March, when an Iraqi government offensive against Shia militias in southern Basra sparked a surge in violence in the capital and other cities, catching US and Iraqi officials off guard.

US officials credit the turnaround in security to President George W. Bush's decision to send 30,000 extra troops to Iraq, a rebellion by Sunni tribal leaders against al-Qaeda, and a ceasefire by anti-American Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.