BAGHDAD - Bomb and gun attacks killed at least 17 Iraqis on Wednesday as US and British commanders expressed cautious optimism that a plan to restore peace to Baghdad was working.

Last month, before the latest security plan got fully underway in the capital, there was a record number of insurgent attacks across Iraq, but US leaders now believe that August's figures will buck the upward trend.

"The Battle of Baghdad will determine the future of Iraq," the US ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, said in an article in the Wall Street Journal.

The diplomat wrote that the Baghdad security clamp-down was "already beginning to show positive results," noting that the crime rate in the formerly lawless southern Baghdad district of Dura had dropped by 80 percent.

"Although it is too early to determine whether these success stories will be replicated throughout the city, this initial progress should give Iraqis, as well as Americans, hope about the future," Khalilzad said.

On Tuesday, US spokesman Major General William Caldwell told reporters: "We are always very cautious not to take just two weeks of data and make a long-term assessment on it ... but the initial indications are very positive."

Violence continued around Iraq -- killing 15 civilians, one policeman and one army officer -- while the bodies of nine murder victims were found.

The most widespread violence on Wednesday was in Diyala province just north of the capital around the city of Baquba, where a total of 10 people were killed and three more bodies found, according to police sources.

On the road between Basra and Nasiriyah in the south of the country, a remote-controlled roadside bomb tore apart a civilian car, killing the driver and his passenger, police said.

In the northern city of Mosul, where insurgents have been conducting a fierce campaign against government security forces, a suicide bomber detonated his explosive vest at a police checkpoint outside a courthouse.

Six officers were wounded, but the bomber was the only person killed in the attack, city police told AFP.

In the northern city of Kirkuk, two civilians were shot dead in a carjacking and two more, including a child, were wounded in crossfire between insurgents and troops at an army checkpoint, Captain Imad Jassim said.

Police found six more dead bodies under a bridge between the two volatile cities of Mahmudiyah and Latifiyah, south of Baghdad. Officers said they appeared to have been killed some time ago.

And police in the southern town of Amara said that an Iraqi army officer had been killed by a pistol shot in front of his own home, while a former member of ousted leader Saddam Hussein's Baath Party was also murdered, police said.

Amara has been tense since a raid by a British armoured column on Tuesday netted six alleged militants suspected of shelling a nearby coalition base, including one described by a British spokesman as a "significant terrorist".

In the capital Baghdad, one civilian was killed when a roadside booby trap ripped open a minibus, and two bomb attacks -- including a suicide car bomb -- wounded nine police officers, an interior ministry official said.

Two of the bombs were in Dura, an area US troops now regard as secure.

The coalition says the vast majority of violence in Iraq is centred around the capital, and has launched a joint US-Iraqi drive to isolate flashpoints, search for weapons and engage local leaders in reconstruction projects.

Lieutenant General Rob Fry, the commander of British troops in Iraq, praised the Baghdad operation in a video-conference with reporters in Washington.

"I think that what we've seen in Baghdad over the last four or five weeks has been an extremely well-conceived operation that tries to combine military effect with political engagement," he said.

Fry said that British forces in southern Iraq, where they have faced serious challenges in pacifying the unruly city of Basra, were watching US progress in Baghdad carefully and could learn lessons from it.

08/23/2006 13:33 GMT

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