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Does decline in Iraq violence point to peace?

Soldiers to shopkeepers ponder what's behind recent improvements in security.

By Washington Post
Published November 3, 2007


BAGHDAD - From store clerks selling cigarettes by generator power, to military commanders poring over aerial maps, Iraqis and Americans are striving to understand the sharp decrease in violence over the past several months and what it might herald for the future of Iraq.

The number of attacks against U.S. soldiers has fallen to levels not seen since before the February 2006 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra that touched off waves of sectarian killing, according to U.S. military statistics released on Thursday. The death toll for American troops in October fell to 39, the lowest level since March 2006, and the eighth lowest total in 56 months of fighting, according to the Web site icasualties.org, which tracks military fatalities.

An unofficial Health Ministry tally showed that civilian deaths across Iraq rose last month compared with September, but the U.S. military found that such deaths fell from a high this year of about 2,800 in January to about 800 in October.

"This trend represents the longest continuous decline in attacks on record and illustrates how our operations have improved security since the surge was emplaced," Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the commander of day-to-day military operations in Iraq, said at a briefing for reporters. The momentum, Odierno said, was "positive" but "not yet irreversible."

Both Iraqis and U.S. soldiers are wrestling with a basic question: Is the declining violence a lull in the war or the beginning of a long road to peace?

"It's temporary because the United States cannot maintain this number of troops in the areas where they are in," said Saleh al-Mutlak, a secular Sunni who leads the Iraqi National Dialogue Front political party. "And if they do so, there will be no normal life in these areas."

'Things are improving'

For Abdul Amir Jumaa, a shopkeeper in central Baghdad, the parameters of his personal security are expanding, but they still have definite borders. He feels safe enough to travel to a wholesale market for crates of lemon soda and cartons of cigarettes, but does not yet dare send his daughter back to high school. He feels safe enough to drive his new Peugeot throughout his own Karrada neighborhood, but not in the Sunni districts across the Tigris River. His family's entertainment is watching satellite television at home because they are still afraid to venture to parks or restaurants.

"The people used to talk all about 'security is bad, security is bad,' but in the past month, everywhere we go, everyone is talking about how things are improving," he said. "Before the war, it was still much better than now. It has not gotten to that level yet."

In many areas of Iraq, U.S. soldiers are finding fewer corpses on their daily patrols.

In western Baghdad's Amiriyah district, where 14 U.S. soldiers were killed in May alone, a roadside bomb has not exploded since Aug. 7, said Lt. Col. Dale Kuehl, the battalion commander in the area. The last mortar or rocket attack was in July.

"The local population has decided that the objectives of al-Qaida are not consistent with their goals," Kuehl said. "Al-Qaida overplayed their hand in Amiriyah and the locals rose up against them."

American soldiers counted an average of 275 murders per week in northwest Baghdad; now the weekly average is down to 10 to 15, said Lt. Col. Steven Miska, a deputy brigade commander stationed in the Shiite enclave of Kadhimiyah. One factor, Miska said, was the decision of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to "freeze" for six month the activities of his Mahdi Army militia.

"The overall trend is very heartening, obviously, but I would definitely shy away from trying to attribute it to one particular thing in general," Miska said. "There are a lot of factors that play into why we have this relative calm."

Some U.S. military commanders say that President Bush's decision to send about 30,000 additional soldiers to Iraq, and their move from sprawling bases to small outposts in violent neighborhoods, played a leading role in the decline. Iraqi and U.S. officials also argue that the drop in attacks by al-Qaida in Iraq stemmed mostly from the decision by other Sunni insurgent groups to embrace a partnership with U.S. soldiers and abandon their complicity with al-Qaida in Iraq's campaign of killing and religious fundamentalism.

Battlegrounds remain

In Diyala province, one of the deadliest for U.S. soldiers and Iraqis earlier this year, there has been an "absolutely dramatic decrease of violent acts" after U.S. reinforcements arrived and made an aggressive effort to partner with these resident volunteers, said Col. David Sutherland, the top American commander in Diyala.

"Al-Qaida controlled their lives, now the attacks, (car bombs) and violent acts are few and far between," he said.

Still, militias and insurgents remain active in many areas. Parts of southern Baghdad remain a battleground between American soldiers, encroaching Shiite militias, and persistent fighters from al-Qaida in Iraq. Many areas formerly mixed with Sunnis and Shiites have become largely the domain of one sect, since millions of Iraqis have fled their homes for other countries or parts of Iraq over the years.

It is difficult to determine whether the underlying animosity between sectarian groups that has driven so much violence has diminished, or whether it has become more difficult to carry out attacks.

Outside of Baghdad, many Iraqis interviewed still perceive grave threats from violence. They live within walled-off neighborhoods or the relative protection of their ethnic group.

Basim Hamdi, a 32-year-old Shiite merchant from Balad, in northern Iraq, described life in his city as a "sectarian fire."

"The security situation in Balad is so bad compared with last year," he said. "No one from here can go outside the city except for emergencies, and no Sunni can get in. "