Violence in Iraq Still Falling, but Pace of Decline Slows

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By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Overall violence continues to decline in Iraq, although the rate of decrease has slowed since September and a few indicators have actually gone up in recent weeks, according to U.S. military figures released yesterday by the White House.

The number of bomb, small-arms, mortar and sniper attacks, as well as attacks against Iraqi infrastructure, remained virtually unchanged over six weeks, at just below 600 a week through the first week of December. The figure stood at about 900 a week at the end of September, compared with an all-time high of nearly 1,600 attacks per week in June.

Significantly, the data show a continuation of the precipitous decline in blasts caused by improvised explosive devices that began early last summer. Those explosions now occur about 20 times a day throughout Iraq, down from about 60 in June and lower than at any point since September 2004.

Such devices placed in the path of U.S. military vehicles have caused more American deaths than any other form of attack, and their decline has been a prime factor in the falling U.S. casualty rate. U.S. officials differ on whether the decrease in roadside bombs reflects a change in policy by Iran -- thought to supply many of the devices and all of the most sophisticated version, known as explosively formed penetrators -- or is the result of changes in tactics by the Iraqi Shiite militias that use them.

Although the number of "high profile" explosions fell, including those from roadside and car bombs, there was a slight increase in suicide attacks. Sectarian deaths were down slightly, and overall civilian deaths fell to just below 400 a month, according to information gathered by the Multi-National Force-Iraq (MNF-I). That number increases by 50 percent if data gathered by the Iraqi government is included.

Release of the data comes as the Pentagon is preparing its quarterly statistical report on Iraq for Congress. The Pentagon's use of different yardsticks -- monthly rather than weekly attacks, civilian casualties rather than civilian deaths, not including Iraqi government data -- has been a source of controversy.

Gen. David H. Petreaus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, has recommended that the Pentagon replicate the information in the form produced by his command, rather than reconfiguring the data, and he has said that some Iraqi statistics should be included, according to senior military officials in Iraq.

White House, Pentagon and MNF-I officials yesterday declined or were not available to comment on why the figures were released by the White House as an "Iraq Update" before the quarterly report, which is to be released as early as today.

The differing measurements have been a source of confusion in the past. In Iraq yesterday, the outgoing U.S. commander for Baghdad said the number of attacks in the capital had fallen almost 80 percent since November 2006, murders in Baghdad province were down by 90 percent over the same period, and vehicle-borne bombs had declined by 70 percent. Army Maj. Gen. Joseph F. Fil did not provide numbers behind the percentages.

In a video news conference with Pentagon reporters, Fil also said the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces had "improved significantly," and he praised Iraq's Baghdad Operations Command. "In many areas around the city," he said, "yesterday's battle zone is today's blossoming communities, thanks to their efforts."

But Iraqi troops and police still require significant support from U.S. forces, he said, and "it's clear that pulling out too quickly, before the Iraqis are truly able to take over these areas independently, would be very risky. . . . There are some areas in the city where, at this point, it would fail."

Although al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters are not "controlling any part of Baghdad," he said, they are "still lurking in the shadows," and "militia and criminal networks are still very potent threats."

Fil, whose 1st Cavalry Division is being replaced in Baghdad this week by the 4th Infantry, said he was comfortable with the current plan to pull out 20,000 U.S. troops from Iraq by mid-2008.

He described the reduction as "simply thinning the ranks . . . in areas that are going well, retaining some coalition presence there."

Responding to a question about a faster reduction in troop levels, as some in Congress have demanded, Fil said that "an immediate pullout too quickly would be a real serious threat to stability here in Baghdad."


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