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 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 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."
American soldiers last winter counted an average of 275 murders per week in northwestern 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 public decision of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to "freeze" for six months 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," Miska said. "There are a lot of factors that play into why we have this relative calm."
Some U.S. military commanders say 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-Qaeda 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-Qaeda in Iraq's campaign of killing and religious fundamentalism. The resulting new armed groups, known by the American military as volunteers or concerned local citizens, have taken the place of a sometimes deficient, corrupt or nonexistent Iraqi police force.
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" since 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-Qaeda controlled their lives. Now the attacks, [car bombings] and violent acts are few and far between," he said. "We're seeing new businesses open every day, the children are back in school, public distribution system of food is throughout the province, and we're seeing an increase in essential services."
Even with lower casualty numbers, the quantity of violence indicates that militias and insurgents remain active in many areas. Large parts of southern Baghdad remain a battleground where U.S. soldiers, steadily encroaching Shiite militias and persistent fighters from al-Qaeda in Iraq clash. Attacks, unless particularly deadly, often pass with little notice outside the neighborhood in which they occur.
Many formerly mixed Sunni-Shiite areas have become largely the domain of one sect, since millions of Iraqis have fled their homes for other countries or other parts of Iraq over the years. "It's much harder to conduct sectarian cleansing if you've got a homogenous neighborhood which has a local volunteer security force which is on the lookout for those people," Miska said.
Casualty numbers themselves are inconsistent. The U.S. military said about 800 civilians were killed in October, but an unofficial tally by the Health Ministry showed that 1,448 civilians had died violently, including those whose bodies were dumped without identification. An official provided the data, which showed an increase in deaths compared with September, on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to release it publicly.
It is difficult to determine whether the underlying animosity between sectarian groups, which has driven so much violence, has diminished or whether attacks have become more difficult to carry out.
Outside Baghdad, many Iraqis interviewed still perceive grave threats from violence. They live in walled-off neighborhoods or under the relative protection of their ethnic group.
Basim Hamdi, 32, a Shiite merchant from Balad, about 50 miles north of Baghdad, 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."
As some threats in Iraq have subsided, new ones have emerged. Turkish soldiers now threaten major incursions and regularly shell mountainous Kurdish villages in the north in an attempt to combat separatist guerrillas.
"Violence has not been reduced. This year was the bloodiest for all of the people in Kirkuk," said Hewa Fatih Abdullah al-Shwani, a Kurdish businessman who lives north of the city. He used to travel south to Baghdad and Basra to coordinate cement shipments, but now deals exclusively with Kurdish colleagues or arranges for his merchandise to come from neighboring Iran and Turkey.
"I do not see any improvement because terrorists keep changing their plans," he said. "When you arrest a thousand, you will find another thousand more because of unemployment, mistakes, chaos and the weakness of the central government."
Perceptions of safety and risk can change in an instant. One 50-year-old Sunni government employee, a lifelong resident of the northern Baghdad Sunni enclave of Adhimiyah, said that he knew his neighborhood was dangerous but that he felt comfortable because he knew his neighbors and because of his standing in the community.
On Monday, however, as he was driving to a market, gunmen stopped the man, who asked that his name not be published to protect his security. They bound his hands and feet with shoelaces, put a mask over his head and forced him into the trunk of their car, he said. One of the gunmen told him: "Do not beg me or say, 'I didn't do anything.' I do not know you and I only follow my orders," he recalled. "I received an order to take you and now I am waiting for another order, either to kill you or release you."
The next afternoon his captors released him unharmed. "I do not know what to do now. I do not leave my house. I've gathered my family around me and won't let my children go to school," the man said. "I thought it was safe to stay here."
Staff writer Ann Scott Tyson at the Pentagon, correspondent Amit R. Paley and special correspondents Saad al-Izzi in Baghdad, Muhanned Saif Aldin in Tikrit and Saad Sarhan in Najaf and other Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.