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Experts Doubt Drop In Violence in Iraq

The GAO report found that "average number of daily attacks against civilians have remained unchanged from February to July 2007," a conclusion that the military said was skewed because it did not include dramatic, up-to-date information from August.

Juan R.I. Cole, a Middle East specialist at the University of Michigan who is critical of U.S. policy, said that most independent counts "do not agree with Pentagon estimates about drops in civilian deaths."

In a letter last week to the leadership of both parties, a group of influential academics and former Clinton administration officials called on Congress to examine "the exact nature and methodology that is being used to track the security situation in Iraq and specifically the assertions that sectarian violence is down."

The controversy centers as much on what is counted -- attacks on civilians vs. attacks on U.S. and Iraqi troops, numbers of attacks vs. numbers of casualties, sectarian vs. intra-sect battles, daily numbers vs. monthly averages -- as on the numbers themselves.

The military stopped releasing statistics on civilian deaths in late 2005, saying the news media were taking them out of context. In an e-mailed response to questions last weekend, an MNF-I spokesman said that while trends were favorable, "exact monthly figures cannot be provided" for attacks against civilians or other categories of violence in 2006 or 2007, either in Baghdad or for the country overall. "MNF-I makes every attempt to ensure it captures the most comprehensive, accurate, and valid data on civilian and sectarian deaths," the spokesman wrote. "However, there is not one central place for data or information. . . . This means there can be variations when different organizations examine this information."

In a follow-up message yesterday, the spokesman said that the non-release policy had been changed this week but that the numbers were still being put "in the right context."

Attacks labeled "sectarian" are among the few statistics the military has consistently published in recent years, although the totals are regularly recalculated. The number of monthly "sectarian murders and incidents" in the last six months of 2006, listed in the Pentagon's quarterly Iraq report published in June, was substantially higher each month than in the Pentagon's March report. MNF-I said that "reports from un-reported/not-yet-reported past incidences as well as clarification/corrections on reports already received" are "likely to contribute to changes."

When Petraeus told an Australian newspaper last week that sectarian attacks had decreased 75 percent "since last year," the statistic was quickly e-mailed to U.S. journalists in a White House fact sheet. Asked for detail, MNF-I said that "last year" referred to December 2006, when attacks spiked to more than 1,600.

By March, however -- before U.S. troop strength was increased under Bush's strategy -- the number had dropped to 600, only slightly less than in the same month last year. That is about where it has remained in 2007, with what MNF-I said was a slight increase in April and May "but trending back down in June-July."

Petraeus's spokesman, Col. Steven A. Boylan, said he was certain that Petraeus had made a comparison with December in the interview with the Australian paper, which did not publish a direct Petraeus quote. No qualifier appeared in the White House fact sheet.

When a member of the National Intelligence Council visited Baghdad this summer to review a draft of the intelligence estimate on Iraq, Petraeus argued that its negative judgments did not reflect recent improvements. At least one new sentence was added to the final version, noting that "overall attack levels across Iraq have fallen during seven of the last nine weeks."

A senior military intelligence official in Baghdad deemed it "odd" that "marginal" security improvements were reflected in an estimate assessing the previous seven months and projecting the next six to 12 months. He attributed the change to a desire to provide Petraeus with ammunition for his congressional testimony.

The intelligence official in Washington, however, described the Baghdad consultation as standard in the NIE drafting process and said that the "new information" did not change the estimate's conclusions. The overall assessment was that the security situation in Iraq since January "was still getting worse," he said, "but not as fast."

Staff writer Ann Scott Tyson contributed to this report.

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