By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 30, 2007
BAGHDAD, Dec. 29 -- The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, delivered a positive but cautious assessment Saturday of progress in the country in 2007, citing the drop-off in violence over the latter half of the year but warning that the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq remains the country's preeminent threat.
Petraeus said the number of weekly attacks in Iraq -- such as roadside bombings, mortar attacks and sniper fire -- has fallen by about 60 percent since June, to about 500 a week by late this month. The number of Iraqi civilians killed in December through the 22nd appeared to be about 600, according to a graph of the past two years provided by Petraeus that uses combined Iraqi and U.S. figures. The highest death toll during this period came last December, when about 3,000 civilians were killed.
"The positive security trends and the factors that produced them are changing the context in many parts of Iraq. While progress in many areas remains fragile, security has improved," Petraeus said during a briefing for reporters at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. He added that success "will emerge slowly and fitfully, with reverses as well as advances, accumulating fewer bad days and gradually more good days. There will inevitably be more tough fighting."
The downturn in violence is generally attributed to three factors that emerged over the year: the arrival of 30,000 additional U.S. troops, the emergence of tens of thousands of Sunni fighters who aligned with American troops against al-Qaeda in Iraq, and the decision by Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to call for a six-month cease-fire by his militia. Petraeus also cited a drop-off in fighters coming to Iraq from Syria and Saudi Arabia, and a decline in recent months in the use of weapons believed to have been made in Iran.
Iraqi Interior Ministry officials, in a separate briefing Saturday, singled out the rise of the Sunni groups, known often as the Sahawa, or Awakening, as a main reason for improvement in 2007, a rare public endorsement from the Shiite-led government, which has been wary of, and sometimes opposed to, those groups. Maj. Gen. Ayden Khaled Qadir, deputy interior minister for security affairs, said there are plans to include 12,641 people from those groups into the police force in Baghdad by the end of April. The Iraqi government has been slow to do that, fearing that many such people are former insurgents with an anti-Shiite outlook.
For a time this year, U.S. officials in Iraq described Shiite militias as the most damaging and destabilizing force in the country, but Petraeus identified al-Qaeda in Iraq as the top threat.
"We call it sometimes 'the wolf closest to the sled.' It is the most significant enemy that Iraq faces precisely because it is the enemy that carries out the most horrific attacks, that causes the greatest damage to infrastructure and that seems most intent on reigniting ethno-sectarian violence," he said.
He said that al-Qaeda in Iraq has been diminished by aggressive military operations and by the rise of the Awakening groups and that the insurgents have responded by attacking those forces. In an audiotape released Saturday purported to be by Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaeda warned Iraq's Sunnis against joining such tribal councils or participating in any unity government. "The most evil traitors are those who trade away their religion for the sake of their mortal life," bin Laden said, according to a translation by the Associated Press.
Petraeus said the al-Qaeda in Iraq network and its affiliates have moved into northern Iraqi provinces such as Nineveh, Diyala and Salahuddin after coming under pressure from U.S. and Iraqi forces in Baghdad and Anbar provinces. The one Iraqi province that has not had a reduction in attacks is Nineveh, where insurgents operate in and around the provincial capital of Mosul.
In recent days there have been two major bombings in northern provinces, one in the oil refinery town of Baiji and another in Baqubah, the capital of Diyala province. Together, they killed at least 26 people.
Contrary to other trends, the number of suicide car bombings and suicide-vest attacks has risen in each of the past three months, though the frequency is still below peak levels this year. There were about 50 "high-profile" explosions in the first three weeks of December, according to U.S. military figures.
"There will be bombs" in Iraq, Petraeus predicted. "If the metric is that there are no car bombs or no suicide-vest bombs, I think that would just be an unrealistic metric."
Also Saturday, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was flown to London for a medical examination after suffering from what his aides described as fatigue. The Reuters news service quoted an unnamed official as saying Maliki, 57, would undergo cardiac tests.
Earlier in the week, Maliki was examined at a U.S. military hospital in Baghdad's Green Zone, said Col. Steven A. Boylan, a U.S. military spokesman. His doctors and advisers recommended a checkup in London, said Sami al-Askiri, an adviser to the prime minister. A statement from the Iraqi government described Maliki as "fully healthy" but suffering from exhaustion.
Special correspondent Zaid Sabah contributed to this report.