US troop losses in Iraq have plummeted in the past few months to levels not seen since early 2006 – an encouraging sign, say analysts and defense officials, that the US strategy is working, at least for now.
American defense officials cite recent weapons finds, disruption of bombmaking cells, and the 2007 "surge" of US forces as contributing to a dramatic improvement in security in many parts of Iraq, cutting casualties among both Iraqi civilians and US troops.
It is too soon to know if the trend will last or whether the reduction of American forces in coming months, as planned, will undermine what remains a fragile security on the ground.
Nor does it signal that victory is imminent. Instead, the security gains present a "window of opportunity" that will stay open only if economic opportunity, government coherence, and stronger Iraqi security forces materialize in Iraq, says a senior defense official.
"If those things don't occur, then you'll begin to see things backslide on the military side," says the official, who asked not to be named in order to speak more freely.
It's far from clear if the pieces that US officials see as needing to come together in Iraq will do so. Much of the Iraqi government is still not functional, and US commanders marvel at its inability to spend its budget – seen as key to establishing permanent security by stimulating economic activity and restoring basic services to Iraqis.
120 deaths in May; 23 in October
The Pentagon reported 23 service members killed in combat this month as of Tuesday, noting that insurgent and other attacks have plunged in violence-prone places like Baghdad. As recently as May, as the Pentagon completed its "surge" of about 30,000 additional US forces and began military operations in more dangerous areas of Iraq, US combat deaths were five times as high, with 120 killed. This month, by contrast, the casualty rate is on par with that of March 2006, when 27 service members were killed. Since the beginning of the war, only a few months have seen fewer fatalities than this month, including February 2004, arguably the predawn of the insurgency in Iraq, when 12 US service members were killed.
Still, the number of US forces killed so far this year is a few dozen more than the total number killed in action during all of 2006. Yet the recent trend is a positive sign, officials and analysts say.
What makes it significant is that US forces in Iraq are still conducting operations, not "hunkering down" in the relative security of the many sprawling US bases.
"There is no other way to interpret it but as extremely good news," says Michael O'Hanlon, a senior analyst at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington.
Conditions remain dangerous, of course. A suicide bomber on Monday killed nearly 30 people at the morning roll call of a police unit in Baquba, north of Baghdad. The same day, a brigadier general assigned to the US Army Corps of Engineers became the most senior American officer to be seriously injured by a roadside bomb. He is expected to make a full recovery. In the meantime, extremist elements within the Iraqi security forces pose an ongoing concern.
But it's hard to argue with fewer US casualties, says Mr. O'Hanlon, who is both hawkish and critical of the war. He took some flak over the summer for co-writing an op-ed that critics said was too rosy about the troop surge in Iraq, though much of the article's analysis has so far been borne out.
"There are a million things still wrong in Iraq, but it is extremely good news in what remains a very difficult war," he says.
In Iraq, there's never a simple answer to any question, and the explanation for why security is improving is no different.
The so-called Anbar Awakening, in which Sunni sheikhs in Anbar Province came together to fight Al Qaeda in Iraq, and an apparent retreat of the Shiite militia Jash al-Mahdi have lessened the number of bombings and other violence, US military commanders in Iraq say. In addition, the proliferation of what is known as "concerned citizens" – average Iraqis typically paid by the US to maintain security in their neighborhoods – has changed the security situation on the ground in places like Babil and Diyala Provinces, where both US and Iraqi officials say people have tired of the violence.
But the senior military official says recent discoveries of major weapons caches – five in the past week – and the disruption of bombmaking cells by going after their leaders have also had an impact.
"We've really focused on attacking the leadership," the senior defense official says. "We're really focusing on trying to take down that enemy line of operation."
But the situation there is still very wait-and-see. Pentagon officials say violence in Iraq is down considerably since the last of the surge forces arrived there in early summer, and incidents during the holy month of Ramadan – typically a time of heightened violence – were the lowest in three years, according to Maj. Gen. Richard Sherlock, director of operational planning at the Pentagon, during a briefing last week. (Iraq's Interior Ministry has reported that the nation's death toll in October is at the lowest level in 18 months.)
"While this is indeed encouraging, Al Qaeda in Iraq, other extremist groups, and criminal elements in Iraq continue to be major threats," he said. "The likelihood that those groups will attempt spectacular attacks, especially in places like northern Iraq and in and around different areas of Baghdad, remains significant."
Lawrence Korb, a former top Pentagon official who is now at the liberal Center for American Progress, another think tank in Washington, says he is hopeful but not altogether confident that a drop-off in troop losses represents a turning point in Iraq.
"We've seen these lulls before," says Mr. Korb, a critic of US policy in Iraq. He's hoping this one will be permanent.
More US losses in '07 than '06
There have been more US combat-related fatalities in Iraq in the first 10 months of this year, 713, compared with all of last year, in which 704 US service members died, he notes.
Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, has said he is planning to cut the number of US brigades in Iraq from 20 to 15 by sometime next summer, with some reductions coming later this year. About 170,000 US forces are in Iraq now. A brigade has about 3,500 service members. Many analysts say that plan is doable, but suggest that, given the current competency of the Iraqi security forces, the second phase of a withdrawal is a much farther reach.
Increased security could unravel when more US troops are sent home, says Korb.
"I think it offers you hope if you're willing to keep a very large number of troops in there for a very long time."