In Iraq, a Lull or Hopeful Trend?

Lt. Brian Bifulco, 23, a platoon leader with the 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, walks with his interpreter through Sadiyah, a volatile area of southwestern Baghdad where militiamen have targeted Sunnis.
Lt. Brian Bifulco, 23, a platoon leader with the 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, walks with his interpreter through Sadiyah, a volatile area of southwestern Baghdad where militiamen have targeted Sunnis. (By Joshua Partlow -- The Washington Post)
By Joshua Partlow and Naseer Nouri
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, November 2, 2007

BAGHDAD, Nov. 1 -- 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 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, 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 T. 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."

But Iraq defies sweeping statements about safety or danger. 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?

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

For Abdul Amir Jumaa, a shopkeeper in central Baghdad, the geography of his personal security is expanding but still has 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. Some areas once under the sway of the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq have witnessed striking reversals. And Baghdad sounds quieter than last year: There are fewer deep, resonating explosions from car bombs, and the constant clatter of gunfire has become sporadic.

In western Baghdad's Amiriyah district, where 14 U.S. soldiers were killed in May alone, there has not been a roadside bomb explosion 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-Qaeda are not consistent with their goals," Kuehl said. "Al-Qaeda overplayed their hand in Amiriyah and the locals rose up against them." While there is a need for improved electrical, trash collection and sewage systems, and for a tangible commitment from Iraq's Shiite-led government to help Sunni neighborhoods, Kuehl said, the drop in violence has dramatically improved what soldiers call the "atmospherics" of the neighborhood: There are more pedestrians, shoppers and vehicles on the streets.

"I have eaten dinner in several homes and even went to a wedding. None of this would have been feasible six months ago," he said. "I hesitate to say we have turned a corner. Insurgencies tend to be fairly resilient and can come back if the underlying causes of the insurgency are not addressed in the political realm."

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