US troop fatalities in Iraq have plummeted from near-historic highs just two months ago. The number of deaths attributed to improvised explosive devices is down by more than half. Violence is down in the four most dangerous provinces.
The decrease is an apparent sign that, by at least one indicator, the surge of American forces is doing something it set out to do: tamp down the violence.
But even if this positive trend were to continue for the next several months, the larger question remains unanswered: Will the reduced levels of violence push Kurdish, Shiite, and Sunni groups to reach political reconciliation so that US troops can withdraw? US military officials are wary.
"Success does not hinge on the effectiveness or success solely of the security situation," says one senior official in uniform, who requested anonymity, echoing what many military officials have said. "It really depends on political governance."
As a single measure of success or failure in Iraq, the rate of American fatalities has its own limitations. But it does reflect the ability of the US to reduce insurgent-led violence. Two months ago, US fatalities climbed to 128, making May the third deadliest month for US troops in Iraq since the war began in 2003. But since then, as the surge of 30,000 new US forces has arrived, fatalities have fallen sharply. At press time, the toll for the month of July stood at 74, a decrease of 42 percent compared with May. That's the lowest fatality rate since last November.
When the surge was announced earlier this year, critics said adding more troops in one area would simply force insurgents to provoke violence in other areas. But according to an analysis by Pentagon officials, fatalities are down in July in all four of the most violent provinces of Iraq: Baghdad, Anbar, Salahaddin, and Diyala.
In Baghdad Province, for example, 27 Americans were killed as of July 24, down from 44 in May. In Diyala Province, six Americans were killed as of July 24, a decrease from 19 in May. Sunni-dominated Anbar Province to the west of Baghdad, where violence has been tamped down in part because Sunni sheiks have organized against Sunni extremism there, five American service members were killed as of July 24, down from 14 for the month of May. Salahaddin saw the same trend, where 12 were killed in May, six in July. The four provinces represent about 37 percent of the Iraqi population but nearly 80 percent of the violence that occurs in Iraq.
The toll from improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, has also decreased considerably in the last two months. As of July 24, 40 Americans had been killed in July, down from 95 in May.
Iraqis are also seeing a decrease in violence. The number of Iraqi security forces and civilian fatalities has declined since May as well, according to icasualties.org, a website that tracks such information. The site reports that there were 1,664 civilians and Iraqi security forces killed in July, down from 1,980 in May, but it notes that no such tallies are completely accurate and are probably much higher.
The reduction in violence doesn't appear to be the result of summer weather, when the intense heat might discourage insurgent attacks. According to an analysis by the Marine command in Anbar, violence trends upward from a low point in January, when it's coldest, through summer to October for each of the last three years. This year, according to Marine Maj. Gen. Walter Gaskin, commander of Multi-national Force West, the violence in Anbar has trended downward instead.
All this may be illustrating what to some is a new reality in Iraq even if much of Washington has yet to acknowledge it, says Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank.
Mr. O'Hanlon has been critical of the war and has remained skeptical of the current strategy. But on Monday, he coauthored an Op-Ed in The New York Times titled "A War We Might Just Win." In it, O'Hanlon says he is impressed with the improved security situation, the reasonably high morale of US troops, and the increasing competency of Iraqi forces. "We are finally getting somewhere in Iraq, at least in military terms," O'Hanlon wrote, along with Brookings colleague Kenneth Pollack. "As two analysts who have harshly criticized the Bush administration's miserable handling of Iraq, we were surprised by the gains we saw and the potential to produce not necessarily 'victory' but a sustainable stability that both we and the Iraqis could live with."
Military officials are heartened by decreases in American fatalities but are reluctant to characterize it as a turning point.
"My initial thought is this is what we thought would happen once we got control of the real key areas that are controlled by these terrorists," Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, the No. 2 American commander in Iraq, said on Thursday. "It's an initial positive sign, but I would argue I need a bit more time to make an assessment of whether it's a true trend or not."
In May, noting the high number of casualties among American forces, General Odierno said it was the result of taking the fight to the enemy, going into places like Diyala and Baquba to fight insurgents, and that he expected over time that the number of casualties would decrease, as it appears to have done now.
Odierno says he may need more time, but Congress is waiting for an assessment as early as next month. That's when Odierno's boss, Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, is expected to provide a comprehensive report of the security situation in Iraq. Military officials caution that General Petraeus's assessment may not make specific recommendations regarding a possible drawdown of the more than 155,000 US troops currently serving in Iraq.
"Petraeus is very, very cautious about how much success he is going to advertise," the senior uniformed official says. "The culminating point is when the hearts and minds finally tip" in Iraq.