Gen. David Petraeus, the senior US commander in Iraq, said Thursday that rates of violence there are at their lowest point in two years.
But his data also show that rates of violence remain high, and warned against reading too much into short-term improvements, the Associated Press reports.
He said that around Thanksgiving commanders looked back at violence levels a year ago, and six months ago, and found a declining line in which violence had declined from a time when hundreds of Iraqis were killed and injured and US troops took heavy losses in a number of horrific attacks, to a time of still somewhat steady but less deadly attacks, to a day last month when there were just 45-50 attacks
Speaking to reporters at the U.S. military's Camp Victory, he said the improved security is due to a number of factors including a "a reduction in some of the signature attacks that are associated with weapons provided by Iran," as well as a cease-fire called by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr that he said had a particularly noticeable impact what had been one of the most violent areas of Baghdad
Nobody says anything about turning a corner, seeing lights at the end of tunnels, any of those other phrases," said Petraeus. "You just keep your head down and keep moving."
Petraeus's briefing came before he was to meet Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who is on a short trip to Iraq. Reuters reports that the general sought to temper optimism, particularly in regards to the presence of Al Qaeda-aligned fighters inside the country.
We have to be careful not to get feeling too successful," General David Petraeus told reporters before meeting Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who was visiting Iraq.
"We see this as requiring a continued amount of very tough work. We see Al Qaeda as a very, very dangerous adversary still able to carry out attacks and an adversary that we must continue to pursue," Petraeus said.
"They have certainly demonstrated the continued ability to carry out car bomb attacks, suicide-vest attacks, suicide car bomb attacks and so forth," he said.
Though the gains are still modest – rates of violence were very high at the time when the measured declines began – the comments from the well-respected general are likely to fuel what has already been a lively debate over the effectiveness of the "surge" strategy he helped put in place.
The additional US forces in Iraq have clearly helped contribute to lower levels of violence, leading to claims of vindication from surge supporters. But US politicians have also expressed frustration that there has been little visible progress towards lasting political reconciliation among Iraq's opposed factions, worrying that could leave the gains made so far temporary.
Secretary Gates himself warned that the improvements could be fleeting, without more political compromise in the country, The Washington Post reports.
"More than ever, I believe that the goal of a secure, stable and democratic Iraq is within reach," Gates said at a news conference in the fortified Green Zone. "We need to be patient, but we also need to be absolutely resolved in our desire to see the nascent signs of hope across Iraq expand and flourish."
Col. Jon S. Lehr and several Army and Marine colonels who met with Gates in Baghdad told him that although they believe the United States is now "winning" in Iraq, tactical security gains may not endure without economic rebuilding and better governance.
Overall, Gates voiced concern that progress on reconciliation at the local level is moving faster than at the national level, said a senior defense official who briefed reporters on the way to Iraq. National leaders "may be outpaced" by developments at the grass-roots level, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The New York Times reports concerns among Iraqi politicians that security gains may not be consolidated.
It's more a cease-fire than a peace," said Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih, a Kurd, in words that were repeated by Qassim Daoud, a Shiite member of Parliament.
The Sunni insurgents who turned against the jihadists are now expecting to be rewarded with government jobs. Yet, so far, barely 5 percent of the 77,000 Sunni volunteers have been given jobs in the Iraqi security forces, and the bureaucratic wheels have moved excruciatingly slowly despite government pledges to bring more Sunnis in.
"We are in a holding pattern," said Joost Hiltermann, an Iraq analyst at the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based research organization. "The military solution has gained enough peace to last through the U.S. election, but we have a situation that is extremely fragile. None of the violent actors have either been defeated or prevailed, and the political roots of the conflict have not been addressed, much less resolved."
University of Michigan Middle East historian Juan Cole posts on his blog excerpts from a recent article of his in Salon, in which he argues "Bush's troop surge won't save Iraq" and says he's skeptical that violence is down as much as US and Iraqi statistics show.
The only truly good news to come from Iraq would be good news regarding the political landscape. And there, Iraq is still beset with problems. In recent days, parts of northern Iraq have been invaded by Turkey, an ally of the United States. In Baghdad, Sunni members of parliament staged a walkout to defend their leader, whose bodyguards were implicated in fashioning car bombs. Proposed legislation reducing sanctions against Sunni Arabs who once belonged to the Baath Party nearly produced a riot in parliament.
What the recent publicity about the "success" of the troop surge has ignored is this: The Bush administration has downplayed the collapsing political situation in Iraq by directing the public's attention to fluctuating numbers of civilians killed. While there have been some relative gains in security recently, even there the picture remains dubious.