U.S. military officials say sectarian murders have decreased in Baghdad since a joint U.S.-Iraqi security plan was launched in mid-February, but high-profile car bombings in and around the capital continue to be a concern.  From Baghdad, VOA's Margaret Besheer has more.

U.S. military spokesman, Major General William Caldwell, told reporters at a news conference Wednesday that the overall death toll in Baghdad has dropped, but that countrywide the casualty rate has not decreased as much as they had hoped.

He attributed this to a series of suicide truck bombings targeting police and civilians in recent weeks that have killed and injured hundreds of Iraqis.

"There are encouraging signs more people are buying into restraint instead of retribution," Caldwell says. "However, we continue to be extremely concerned about the enemy's tactic of using high-profile car bomb attacks to massacre innocent civilians."

General Caldwell said al-Qaida in Iraq is responsible for many of those attacks, as it tries to "ignite a cycle of tit-for-tat violence" by provoking retribution attacks.

But he said the new security operation is having a positive effect.

"This increased presence and increased cooperation is helping to bring down the levels of sectarian violence," Caldwell says. "In March, we tracked a 26 percent decline from February."

He added that about 10,000 of the 28,000 U.S. soldiers who are taking part in the new security plan have arrived in Iraq, and the rest of them will be here by June first.

Meanwhile, Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh acknowledged the spread of violence to other parts of the country and said security operations would expand.

Without going into details, Dabbagh said new security operations were launched Tuesday in the northern city of Mosul, where terrorists have tried to use the city as a safe haven.

Citing some measure of progress, Dabbagh said not only was the Iraqi government reducing the hours of Baghdad's curfew, but that in some neighborhoods cement barriers would be removed.

He also announced that another of Iraq's 18 provinces will be turned over to Iraqi control.  The Maysan province, in southeastern Iraq, will be transferred to the Iraqis in May.

In a separate development, General Caldwell addressed news reports that an Iranian envoy would be allowed to see five Iranians who were detained in January in the northern Kurdish controlled city of Irbil.

"What has occurred so far is that the International Committee of the Red Cross has in fact visited with those five people that are in detention," Caldwell says. "Among them was an Iranian who was a member of that delegation. Thus far what we have is an informal request for a consular visit and that is being assessed at this time."
The United States accuses the five of having links to an Iranian Revolutionary Guard network that was supplying funds and weapons to insurgents in Iraq.