By Steven R. Hurst - The Associated Press
Posted : Wednesday Oct 24, 2007 7:06:51 EDT
BAGHDAD — October is on course to record the second consecutive decline in U.S. military and Iraqi civilian deaths and Americans commanders say they know why: the U.S. troop increase and an Iraqi groundswell against al-Qaida and Shiite militia extremists.
Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch points to what the military calls “Concerned Citizens” — both Shiites and Sunnis who have joined the American fight. He says he’s signed up 20,000 of them in the last four months.
“I’ve never been more optimistic than I am right now with the progress we’ve made in Iraq. The only people who are going to win this counterinsurgency project are the people of Iraq. We’ve said that all along. And now they’re coming forward in masses,” Lynch said in a recent interview at a U.S. base deep in hostile territory south of Baghdad. Outgoing artillery thundered as he spoke.
Lynch, who commands the 3rd Infantry Division and once served as the military spokesman in Baghdad, is a tireless cheerleader of the American effort in Iraq. But the death toll over the past two months appears to reinforce his optimism. The question is, of course: Will it last?
As of Tuesday, the Pentagon has reported 28 U.S. military deaths. At the current pace, the monthly total will be about 37 or 38. That would be the lowest total since 31 in March 2006 and the second lowest monthly toll stretching back to February 2004, when 20 soldiers died.
In September, 65 U.S. soldiers died in Iraq.
Part of the trend can be seen in a volatile and violent band of lush agricultural land on Baghdad’s southern border.
The commander of the battle zone — Lt. Col. Val Keaveny, 3rd Battalion, 509th Infantry (Airborne) — said his unit has lost only one soldier in the past four months despite intensified operations against both Shiite and Sunni extremists, including powerful al-Qaida in Iraq cells.
Keaveny attributes the startling decline to a decrease in attacks by militants who are being rounded up in big numbers on information provided by the citizen force — which has literally doubled the number of eyes and ears available to the military.
The efforts to recruit local partners began taking shape earlier this year in the western province of Anbar, which had become the virtual heartland for Sunni insurgents and al-Qaida bands. The early successes in Anbar led to similar alliances in other parts of Iraq.
“People are fed up with fear, intimidation and being brutalized. Once they hit that tipping point, they’re fed up, they come to realized we truly do provide them better hope for the future. What we’re seeing now is the beginning of a snowball,” said Keaveny, whose forces operate out of Forward Operating Base Kalsu, about 35 miles south of Baghdad.
While U.S. death figures appear to be in sharp decline, the number of Iraqi civilians and security forces show a less dramatic drop. And any significant attack — by insurgents or civilians caught in the crossfire — could quickly wipe out the downward trend.
The current pace of civilian deaths would put October at less than 900. The figure last month was 1,023 and for August, 1,956, according to figures compiled by The Associated Press from government reports, hospitals and police. Other tallies differ and some have given higher civilian death tolls.
While the decline in deaths is notable, it is only one of many measures of potential progress in Iraq, said Anthony Cordesman, a former Pentagon analyst now with the private Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Cordesman said a more balanced picture needs to include factors such as wounded civilians and soldiers and the number of people fleeing their homes. The U.N. refugee agency said Tuesday that between 1,000 and 2,000 Iraqis still leave their homes each day for safer havens in the country or in neighboring nations. “It’s just been going up slowly,” said U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees spokeswoman Astrid van Genderen Stort in Geneva.
“The numbers we’re dealing with here are only major acts of violence, the number of times people are killed,” said Cordesman. “This is certainly progress ... but it has to be put in perspective.”
Lynch’s mission also shows the slow pace of reclaiming areas from militants. His troops and their new local allies must work town by town, village by village.
Sunni Sheik Emad Ghurtani is among those helping.
“Honestly, I’m not going to hide this from you,” Ghurtani told Lynch as the two stood talking at a newly established tribal check point near Haswa, a village just north of the Kalsu base.
“There is some al-Qaida here in this area. But, God willing, we will get rid of them. ... The citizens are coming out. They’re not afraid any more,” the tall and handsome tribal leader said. Three scruffy young men watched, AK47s slung over their shoulders, in the sandbag bunker at the check point.
Lynch, hatless on the balmy autumn day, answered in staccato sentences.
“What we really need is information. You know where al-Qaida is. You know who they are. You have to tell us. We can use all our capabilities to take out the enemy. But you have to tell us where they are, because you know. You’ve got our total support.”
The sheik, who made Lynch promise to return for lunch one day, responded with striking eloquence.
“Because of what the American forces have accomplished, instead of us moving step by step we’re going to start running toward the enemy. ... Instead of walking, we’re going to start running now. We just need the weapons and ammunition,” Ghurtani said.
The guard force at the checkpoint changed during the conversation. Three young men barely out of their teens, ancient Kalashnikovs in hand, strolled town the dirt road that led back into Ghurtani territory. Their U.S.-provided uniforms are a vest with a reflective orange band akin to what road crews wear in the U.S.
Ghurtani complained they hadn’t been paid the $100 a month the Americans had promised.
“If I get some of the money they need I can get them shoes, some vests and some ammunition. If they can find me cheap weapons, we can start getting these men ready. God willing in the next few days,” the sheik said.
Most heartening, Lynch said, was the checkpoint just across the road and over an irrigation canal. It was run by Shiites.
Lynch said the checkpoints on opposite sides of the road highlighted a kind of reconciliation by necessity: not fighting each other but protecting themselves from a common enemy.
“The have to be convinced that we’re not leaving. That’s the issue. If they were to think we’re leaving we’d have also sorts of trouble,” Lynch said, clambering over a makeshift earthen bridge across the canal.
The local Shiite sheik wasn’t at the checkpoint.
He was in a hospital recovering from injuries in a car crash. Two ragtag fellows in their 20s stood up from their sandbag bunker and told Lynch they needed money to buy weapons. “Al-Qaida has all kinds of weapons. We just have these old rifles,” one of them said pointing to his dilapidated Kalashnikov.
“OK. We just continue to work together to get you the money so you can buy better weapons, better ammunition, uniforms. Improve your checkpoint. We just have to work together,” Lynch said, spinning on his heel and marching back to his nine-Humvee convoy.
On to Haswa, down a road known for Iranian-made roadside bombs, a Kiowa gunship clattered protectively above. Back at division headquarters, public affairs officers were hammering out more press statements about how Concerned Citizens were leading soldiers to militant weapons caches and turning in extremist fighters.