Attacks in Iraq Continue to Decline
Positive News in GAO's Report Is Tempered by Criticism of U.S. Strategy

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Attacks by insurgents and other fighters in Iraq against U.S. troops, Iraqi forces and civilians dropped sharply in September to their lowest level since early 2006, continuing a decline in violence since June, according to a new Government Accountability Office report released yesterday.

But progress on political goals and reconstruction has been stalled by weaknesses in U.S. strategy and the ineffectiveness of the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad, the GAO report found.

The report was particularly critical of what it called "the lack of strategic plans" to guide U.S. and Iraqi efforts to rebuild and stabilize the country. Recent U.S. attempts to build the capacity of Iraq's central ministries have been "plagued by unclear goals and objectives," said the report, released yesterday before a panel of the House Appropriations Committee.

The GAO report provides the first public monthly update on "enemy-initiated attacks" and shows that the overall number of attacks has declined from about 5,300 in June to about 3,000 in September. Much of the decline occurred in attacks on U.S. military and other coalition forces, the targets of most of the assaults. The reduction in attacks against Iraqi forces and civilians was smaller, it showed.

The number of enemy attacks on civilians, Iraqi Security Forces and coalition troops increased dramatically after the February 2006 bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra and continued rising through June 2007.

To help quell the violence, the United States deployed about 30,000 additional troops to Iraq this spring, bringing the total number of U.S. military personnel to about 164,700 as of September.

The GAO noted that, according to the Defense Intelligence Agency, military reporting on attacks does not account for all the violence in Iraq. It said the military "may underreport incidents of Shi'a militias fighting each other and attacks against Iraqi security forces in southern Iraq," where there are few coalition forces and where the U.S. military has reported escalating violence in recent months.

Previously, the Pentagon released only quarterly violence statistics, but it has begun providing monthly updates at the request of the GAO.

Despite gains in security, the report said the Iraqi government has so far met only one of eight legislative benchmarks aimed at promoting national reconciliation -- protecting the rights of minority parties in the Iraqi legislature. It partially met another benchmark by enacting legislation on the formation of regions, but that law will not be implemented until April 2008, the report said.

Since 2003, it said, Congress has allocated nearly $400 billion for U.S. efforts in Iraq, with about $40 billion supporting reconstruction and stability, it said. But Iraq's government lacks the capacity to spend the funds, and as of mid-July its ministries had spent only 24 percent of their $10 billion budget for capital projects and reconstruction. "Ministries within the Iraqi government continued to be controlled by sectarian factions and are used to maintain power and provide patronage," the GAO said.

Although the Bush administration has provided $300 million from fiscal 2005 to 2007 to strengthen Iraqi ministries, and has requested $255 million more for fiscal 2008, such efforts have been hampered by the lack of a U.S. strategy, Iraqi personnel shortages, militia infiltration of ministries and violence that causes absenteeism.

"Are we effectively helping to build the capabilities of corrupt ministries?" Joseph A. Christoff, director of international affairs and trade for the GAO and author of the report, asked the House panel.

The report is based on interviews with officials from several U.S agencies, including the U.S.-led military command in Iraq, the Pentagon and the State Department, as well as the Iraqi government and international groups.

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