Decline in Iraq violence prompts exit question

After weeks of relative calm, two questions are being asked in war-torn Iraq and in the United States:

Will it last? And when can American forces start coming home?

Real peace, of course, has hardly broken out, and the improved security environment may be fleeting. But recent substantial gains by the Iraqi army, flagging insurgent violence and the fact that civilians are reclaiming a sense of confidence have produced expectations that are higher than at any time since 2003.

It's increasingly reasonable to assume that Iraq's security environment will continue to improve – slowly, maybe at the margins and with the chance that things could go south fast.

Generals and politicians avoid responding directly to questions about troop withdrawals because an answer would determine whether America stays in Iraq indefinitely as an occupier or leaves in a way yet to be decided.

Indeed, many Iraqis believe that the Status of Forces Agreement being negotiated with Washington is a pretext to allow a permanent U.S. military presence, a charge that American officials deny. The agreement would establish a continued U.S. presence in Iraq once the United Nations' permissions expire Dec. 31.

One clue about withdrawal is what's already on the record.

Army Gen. David Petraeus told Congress that after the last “surge” combat brigade leaves Iraq in July, there will be a 45-day period for him to assess the situation and make recommendations for further reductions. Over the past few months, some 12,000 troops have returned to the U.S. without being replaced.

Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, will present his recommendations to his civilian and military superiors in Washington and at Central Command this fall. But as he noted in April, this approach “does not, to be sure, allow establishment of a set withdrawal timeline.”

Emotions in Iraq about the recent calm range from frustration to resignation to hope.

That hope appears at all encourages the government and its American sponsors. There's no denying the recent military gains. Insurgents still attack, but not as often and not as lethally. Iraqi forces are bigger and more aggressive.

One senior U.S. administration official in Baghdad, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk for publication, was moved last week to insist that Iraq's recent safety record “ain't a lull.”

“It's a crisp decline now 17 months in duration,” he said.

Much more needed

Despite the encouraging signs, Iraqi and U.S. officials know that much more needs to be done before peace can be declared.

Some parts of Iraq – around the city of Mosul, for example – remain contested between multinational forces and insurgents. Military analysts verge on predicting a high-profile attack in or around Mosul with mass casualties.

In addition, insurgents of all stripes have changed their tactics – using female suicide bombers instead of car bombs and other explosives.

Even if recent events don't portend a permanent change, nearly all the numbers in the past few weeks suggest that Iraq's center finally may be holding. Of interest to most Americans is the figure 19: the number of U.S. troops who died here in May. It's a still-grim but welcome low point since the war began in 2003.

Through the first five months of this year, 179 U.S. troops died, well below the 475 killed during the same period a year ago.

Iraqi casualty figures also have leveled off. The Iraqi government puts the number of violent deaths for the first five months of this year at 7,854, up from 7,829 in the same period last year. However, officials point out that major operations in the southern city of Basra in March and April swelled the total.

From May 15 to June 3 last year, 316 incidents marred stability in Baghdad. This year, there were 68.

Evidence of near normalcy

In central Baghdad, Al Faris Restaurant owner Haj Hashim said he serves fried fish to 10 or 12 tables of customers a night, up from only two tables a month ago.

A mile away, bookseller Jumaa Mohammed says sales of newspapers and paperbacks have jumped 60 percent from early this year and 80 percent from a year ago.

Nearby, bookstore owner Daoud Mohammed proudly shows his translations of Proust, Melville, Pasternak and Shakespeare. He does so in the dark: power is out again. He sells about 10 books a day, down from about 100 three years ago, but more than earlier this year.

Many Iraqis, while somewhat buoyant, are waiting and seeing. Some suspect that the recent offensives are politically motivated to help certain parties in October's provincial elections.

Ali, who works for a government ministry and who asked that his family name not be used, , voiced a common complaint: “There are now so many (security) checkpoints that it takes so long to move even one kilometer. To me, it's not security, it's martial law.”

Mohammed, the bookstore owner, echoed a standard concern about the U.S. presence: “Are they leaving or staying? Are they friends or occupiers? This is my main question. If they are friends, then American and Iraqi people are friends. If they have the intention of occupiers, it is a different matter.”