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."
Despite the increased sense of security, deep-rooted tensions remain that continue to provoke violence. This week, more than 50 people were killed in a series of attacks related to a power struggle over control of the oil-rich and ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq.
The situation grew more tense on Thursday when the Kurdish majority on the council of Tamim province, which includes Kirkuk, voted to join the neighboring Kurdish regional government.
The move is largely symbolic, because the Iraqi parliament would have to approve it, but it provoked denunciations by representatives of rival ethnic communities, who said they would fight to prevent the Kurds from taking over the city.
"The fires of Kirkuk will eat all Iraq's cities and even the Americans," said Hussein Ali al-Jubouri, the head of the largest Sunni Arab political bloc in Kirkuk.
Also on Thursday, the Reuters news service called on the U.S. military to release a cameraman working for the organization or publicly detail the evidence against him. The journalist, Ali al-Mashhadani, who has also worked for National Public Radio and the BBC, was detained Saturday in the capital's heavily fortified Green Zone, according to Reuters.
A U.S. military spokesman said Mashhadani, who is based in western Anbar province, was detained "because of a perceived security threat" but did not elaborate.
At military bases across Iraq, American soldiers have been paying close attention to the security situation and what it might mean for the timing of their return home.
"My soldiers ask me that every day: I heard a rumor they're reducing our deployment! Is it true?" said 1st Lt. Matthew Linton, 24, of Florida, N.Y., a platoon leader based in the once-volatile Sadr City district of Baghdad. "Everybody wants to come home early."
Linton's troops spent Thursday distributing $2,500 grants to merchants in Sadr City's Jamila Market and chatting with the owner of a candy store.
"When we used to walk the streets in April, they were empty and we would be destroying buildings used by enemy positions," he said. "Now we walk the same streets that were covered in sewage and rubble and utter destruction, and they are vibrant and full of people.
"As the situation improves, it feels more like the race is almost finished," Linton said, "compared to you're in the middle of the race and you have a long way to go."
Marine Cpl. Stephen M. McGinnis was first sent to Anbar in 2006 and returned for a second deployment in May.
"I noticed the decrease in violence immediately," McGinnis, 23, of Philadelphia, wrote in an e-mail.
"I knew it was safer, but I refused to believe it. I still had the same image of trash-filled streets and decaying buildings. When we drove through the city that first night, I was in shock," McGinnis said.
But McGinnis noted that Iraq remains a war zone.
"The threat is still out there," he said. "We are still in a country where there are people who wish us harm, so I can't say I feel completely safe."
Staff writer Dan Eggen in Kennebunkport, Maine; staff researcher Madonna Lebling in Washington; and Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.