An organization that tracks violent deaths in Iraq says that roughly 4,000 civilians were killed in war-related violence this year, the lowest total since the US invasion in 2003. The improvement came even as the US withdrew tens of thousands of troops and abandoned most of its involvement in combat operations.
The numbers contrast with casualty figures in Afghanistan, where a war is raging at its hottest level since it began in 2001 and has seen growing numbers of civilians killed. The Associated Press reports that at least 10 civilians were killed by a roadside bomb in Helmand this morning, a province where both Taliban commanders and drug lords are particularly active.
In the first half of 2010, the United Nations (UN) estimated that 3,268 Afghan civilians died in war related violence, a 31 percent increase from the same period a year earlier. The first half of next year, at least, is also likely to be a violent one in Afghanistan, particularly the south, as the spring thaw brings the return of the fighting season and US forces push to consolidate recent gains in Helmand and the neighboring province of Kandahar.
In Iraq the picture is much better. The Iraq Body Count, an independent group that compiles casualty numbers through open sources such as newspaper reports, counted 3,976 civilian deaths for the year through mid-December. The actual total will be revised higher later to take into account any killings in the last few weeks of the year.
The group, however, says that this year's decline was the shallowest since the Iraq war's civilian violence peaked in 2006 and 2007. In those years, 27,850 and 24,677 people were killed respectively, with civilian deaths dropping by 63 percent in 2008, 50 percent in 2009, and 15 percent this year. The NGO argues that the flattening curve may indicate that Iraq is reaching a stubborn background level of violence that will be difficult to reduce further without major changes.
"While any reduction in the violence rate is welcome, the slowdown in reductions is indicative of an impassable minimum that may have been reached," the group said.
But for all the fears about Iraq's future, from a still-stubborn insurgency that killed a senior police commander in Mosul yesterday to the sectarian divisions that defined Iraq's government formation process, the numbers are a reminder of the stunning improvements that have been made from the dark days of 2006, when Shiite and Sunni death squads roamed many Iraqi cities and in the case of Baghdad religiously cleansed whole neighborhoods of one sect or another.