Iraq combat operations over?

June has been the worst month for US troops in two years. And violence is surging in Afghanistan.

By , Staff writer

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    US troops stand to attention in front of American and Iraqi (r.) flags during a handover ceremony near the northern Iraqi town of Hawija where the US military formally transferred Contingency Operating Location McHenry to Iraqi security forces on May 15.
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The Iraq war is winding down. It's been 10 months since the US declared an end to "combat operations" in the country and US troop levels are at their lowest levels since the war started in 2003.

The war itself feels all but ignored by the general public here at home. On the desk at the Monitor, Internet traffic is our lifeblood and we follow how many "hits" individual stories receive. For at least a year now, it's felt like all our Iraq stories – whether features with strong, unique reporting; analysis pieces on the security situation; or simply straightforward accounts of a major bombing or political meeting – can't get any traction at all.

Yet, this month has been the deadliest for US troops in Iraq in two years.

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So far, 15 US troops have died in country, all but one of them victims of combat incidents. According to iCasualties.org, a group that tracks combat deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, that's the worst month since May 2009, when 25 were killed. This month's deaths were in at least five provinces.

The deaths have come despite (some would say because of) a dramatically reduced American presence.

At this time two years ago, there were about 150,000 soldiers and Marines in Iraq. The surge had just crested then, and the horrific levels of violence in Iraq – the sprawling sectarian war that claimed tens of thousands of lives – were a thing of the past.

Draw down in Afghanistan

Well, in Afghanistan the surge has just crested. President Obama wants to draw down troops between now and the end of next summer, though there will still be almost 70,000 in Afghanistan after the current plans has been carried out. Meanwhile, the violence in Afghanistan is surging, too. The suicide attack that claimed 20 lives (nine of them attackers) at the InterContinental Hotel this week was a reminder that even relatively safe Kabul is not immune.

Overall, 201 US troops have died in Afghanistan this year (there have been 79 deaths for other NATO member forces), which already makes this year the third deadliest of the 10-year war (there were 499 US deaths last year and 317 in 2009).

The situation has been far worse for Afghan civilians. The UN reports 1,090 civilian deaths in Afghanistan and 1,860 injuries from the war in the past three months, a 20 percent increase over the same three month period last year. Over 80 percent of the casualties were attributed to "anti-government" attacks.

Key to ending all this are ongoing peace talks between the Afghan and US government, on the one hand, and the Taliban, on the other. Afghan society is badly fractured, both ethnically and ideologically, and has been living with war of one sort or another for decades. Reconciliation is a key element behind ending the war and reducing violence there.

But in Iraq, which is broadly portrayed as a success in US circles at the moment, society never really reconciled, creating threats for the future.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who leads a Shiite Islamist block, and Iyad Allawi, the secular politician whose Iraqiya block won the most seats in the last parliamentary election, are barely speaking. It took nine months after the last Iraqi election to even form a government, with politicians focused on earning their own sectarian share of power. Though a government of sorts was finally formed last December, the two most important cabinet posts – the heads of the Defense and Interior Ministries – were left to be filled in later. Six months on, they're still not filled, even as suicide bombings and assassinations of local officials are an almost daily occurrence.

That violence is a reason why the US is trying to find a way to stay. A 2008 agreement between Iraq and the US set Jan. 1, 2012, as the day that the long American war in Iraq turns into a pumpkin. US military planners – aware of Iran's growing political influence inside the country, not to mention a tenuous Iraqi governing coalition whose members never buried the hatchet over the bloody Shiite-Sunni civil war – are eager to stay.

While some Iraqi politicians would be happy with that outcome, powerful forces say it's time for us to go. Moqtada al-Sadr, the fiery Shiite preacher whose Mahdi Army and offshoots were major players in the sectarian warfare, has vowed to block any attempt to extend the US mission. He appears to have the votes to do that.

Robert Ziegler at Foreign Policy quotes Feisal Istrabadi – an Iraqi American who helped write Iraq's new constitution, served as a key adviser to politician Adnan Pachachi in the early years of the US occupation, and was an Iraqi diplomat at the UN – as suggesting more American troops are being killed now to dissuade the US from staying. He's probably right, but it's worth remembering that if we do stay then those same people will be trying to kill our troops to ... encourage us to go.

In my years in Iraq, a refrain heard over and over from American grunts steeped in combat was that "they'll be shooting at us for as long as we're here." It's a point worth remembering as the debate plays out.

We may not be paying as much attention as we once were, but the price in in lives will remain to be paid until true political and social reconciliation happens in Iraq.

Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.

(This was edited after posting to correct the number of troops likely to be in Afghanistan at the end of next summer).

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