U.S. Deaths In Iraq Fall To Lowest Of the War

President Bush says there's encouraging news from Iraq, violence is down and that means tour lengths for U.S. troops can drop to 12 months from 15 months. Video by AP
By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 1, 2008

BAGHDAD, July 31 -- Five American troops died in July as a result of combat in Iraq, by far the lowest monthly U.S. death toll of the five-year war.

The number of Iraq-related American troop fatalities in July -- a total of 13 when noncombat deaths and the discovered bodies of two missing soldiers are included -- is a dramatic drop from just over a year ago, when more than 100 troops a month were confirmed dead for several months in a row.

In a brief statement at the White House early Thursday, President Bush suggested that the decreasing violence in Iraq would allow him to withdraw additional U.S. troops before he leaves office. He said that the top American commander in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, would make recommendations in September for "further reductions in our combat forces, as conditions permit."

"The progress is still reversible," Bush said he was told by top U.S. officials in Iraq. "But they report that there now appears to be a degree of durability to the gains we have made."

Bush struck a delicate rhetorical balance between asserting his view that sending additional troops to Iraq has been a success and cautioning that withdrawing troops too rapidly could jeopardize security improvements.

The last of five additional combat brigades sent to Iraq last year left in July, leaving about 140,000 U.S. troops in the country. About 130,000 were in Iraq before the buildup began.

Starting Friday, Bush said, troop deployments in Iraq will shorten from 15 months to 12. The policy, first announced in April, applies to troops heading to Iraq but not those already stationed there.

Bush's statement came on the day the U.S. and Iraqi governments had originally set as a deadline for reaching a security agreement governing the future role of U.S. forces in Iraq. The talks, which began in March, became acrimonious and eventually stalled over the concerns of Iraqi leaders that American demands -- for unilateral control over U.S. combat and detention operations, and immunity from Iraqi law for American troops and defense personnel -- would violate Iraqi sovereignty and establish a permanent occupation.

But Iraqi officials said on Thursday that a recent willingness by the U.S. government to compromise on key issues had left the two sides close to a deal.

"Things look so much better than a few weeks ago that I think we are near to reaching agreement," said Labeed M. Abbawi, a deputy foreign minister. "I don't think it will take months. We're looking at more like days or weeks."

The decline in American deaths highlights improvements in security that are widely attributed to three factors: a cease-fire by the country's largest Shiite militia, the decision of former Sunni insurgents to join with U.S. troops, and the buildup of American forces.

"It just feels so much safer than I ever thought it would," said Sgt. Daniel Ochoa, 26, of Highland Park, Calif., who is based in southern Baghdad. "We don't really go out anymore looking to go and fight the enemy. Things are stabilized, so now we're working more on helping the economy and getting people on their feet."

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