A new Pentagon report says violence is down across Iraq but notes that Iranian influence on Iraq's security continues, despite some assurances this fall that Iran was reducing its shipments of weapons into Iraq.
"There has been no identified decrease in Iranian training and funding of illegal Shiite militias in Iraq," according to the report issued Tuesday. "Tehran's support for Shiite militant groups who attack coalition and Iraq forces remains a significant impediment to progress towards stabilization."
That's a shift from the tone US officials were taking this fall when they said that Iran might be living up to its pledge to stop meddling in Iraq's security. Military commanders indicated an apparent drop in shipments of arms and other equipment that was allegedly being sent to Iraq's Shiite militias and even some Sunni groups. The report, which assesses a three-month period ending in November, seems to confirm that Iran has continued such shipments. At the same time, US military officials in Iraq say they have played down their anti-Iranian statements in part not to inflame US-Iraq-Iranian relations.
But the Pentagon report was otherwise optimistic about the security situation in Iraq, perhaps one of the more upbeat of the Pentagon's quarterly assessments in more than a year.
Roadside bomb attacks, for example, have dropped 68 percent since June, the report said, noting that the decrease was less pronounced during the holy week of Ramadan but that attacks during that period this fall were below that of last year and closer to the number seen in 2005. Additionally, the number of high-profile attacks that kill dozens has dropped 62 percent since March, the report said.
Attacks continue to be the highest in Baghdad, which experiences about 27 attacks per day. But violence there has decreased 53 percent since the last period assessed, the report said.
Sectarian deaths and "incidents" have also declined, even though the US government's assessment of sectarianism has been criticized before for painting too rosy a picture. According to the report, deaths have declined markedly from as many as 1,000 in the month of July to about 200 during November.
"In many parts of Iraq, the reopening of schools, clinics, markets, and improvements in essential services all suggest improvements resulting from hard-fought security gains," according to the report.
But military commanders, analysts, and other US officials agree that no amount of security will create long-term stability if the Iraqi central government doesn't take advantage of it. So far, political reconciliation required for that long-term stability has not taken place. The central government has been unable to spend its own money, divvy up the country's oil and natural gas resources, or make other political progress.
But few can argue with the turnaround, at least for now, in Iraq's security. Still spotty, it has generally improved dramatically even in places once written off altogether.
It's far from clear what is driving the change, but it coincides with a number of things that have occurred over the past several months.
President Bush authorized 30,000 additional forces for Iraq this spring, which helped to build – and then maintain – security in many areas.
At the same time, Army Gen. David Petraeus, who took command of the coalition military effort last winter, tweaked the ground strategy, employing additional counterinsurgency tactics like mixing US forces with the Iraqi population and conducting more joint operations with the Iraqi security forces. Those forces, which now number about 440,000 military and police personnel, are also taking further responsibility for the fight, holding their ground and, with logistical and tactical support from US troops, conducting more of their security missions.
Meanwhile, the US government is paying local Iraqis to safeguard their own neighborhoods. Armed with their own weapons, some individuals, for example, are paid $10 a day to man security checkpoints and follow up on leads if outsiders attempt to disrupt the area. US officials say they hope many of these individuals will be hired by the Iraqi central government as police officers or Iraqi soldiers.
Some successful trends began long before the surge ever began. For example, in Anbar Province to the west of Baghdad, Al Qaeda in Iraq was seen to have overplayed its hand, terrorizing the region and ended up alienating local Sunnis, who then sided with American forces. Working together, they have largely driven Al Qaeda out of at least the most populated areas of Anbar.
But challenges remain, the report said.
"Despite these gains, [Al Qaeda in Iraq] retains the capability to conduct spectacular and highly lethal terrorist attacks in parts of central and northern Iraq," according to the report. It notes that the group has turned to a "murder and intimidation campaign" directed at its former Sunni allies with the aim of countering Iraqis who have turned against the group and sided with Iraqi and American forces.