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Tide of blood subsides in Iraq

  • Story Highlights
  • A year since Bush's 30,000-troop surge, violence in Iraq seems to be slowing
  • Figures in recent months show army and civilian deaths to be on the decline
  • However, 2007 was the deadliest year yet for U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians
  • More than 4 million displaced and refugee Iraqis have returned to their homes
  • Next Article in World »
By CNN's Matt Smith and Joe Sterling
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(CNN) -- A year after President Bush announced he was ordering nearly 30,000 additional American troops into Iraq, that "surge" has at least temporarily staunched the blood-soaked tide of violence loosed on the country in the previous months.

In the Sunni Arab-dominated provinces north and west of Baghdad and in the capital itself, local leaders have been cooperating with U.S. troops against the Islamic jihadists blamed for the worst attacks on civilians.

The massive car bombings that had become routine by the end of 2006 have subsided, and the Sunni-Shiite violence that raged after the February 2006 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra has decreased, U.S. and Iraqi military officials say.

Children and teenagers play soccer along what were once some of the most notoriously dangerous streets in the capital, traffic has picked up and many markets have reopened.

Even a trickle of those who have been uprooted from their homes -- 2.2 million displaced and 2 million refugees -- have returned to their dwellings this year amid reports that security was improving, humanitarian groups and the Iraqi government say.

"A year ago, people were ready to declare Iraq a lost cause," Barham Saleh, Iraq's deputy prime minister, told CNN in a recent interview.

Before leaving for the Middle East on Tuesday, Bush told reporters that violence across Iraq "continues to decrease" and some U.S. troops have already begun coming home.

"As the security improves, life is returning to normal in communities across Iraq, with children back in school and shops reopening and markets bustling with commerce," he said.

But the relative peace has not led to promised steps by Iraqi leaders to bring about a political settlement of the nearly five-year-old war, despite repeated warnings that their time is limited -- and U.S. military planners say the additional brigades committed last January will have to leave by summer.

"After a year, there's very little progress and very little to show from the Iraqis for the sacrifice and the hard work in the military efforts of our carrying out this mission," Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., told reporters Wednesday. "By any standard, we're looking at Iraq not as a success."

In his January 10, 2007 speech from the Oval Office, Bush warned the Iraqis and reassured Americans that the U.S. commitment in the Gulf nation was not "open-ended."

He said his administration would hold the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to a set of benchmarks aimed at promoting political reconciliation and "visible improvements" to neighborhoods.

Iraqi authorities were supposed to take control of security in all 18 provinces by November, and the government was told to find a way to divide the country's oil revenues fairly among its Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish communities, allow former members of executed dictator Saddam Hussein's Baath Party to return to public jobs and spend $10 billion on reconstruction projects.

Iraq was supposed to hold provincial elections in 2007 and establish a fair process for considering amendments to the constitution its people ratified in 2005.

None of those political goals have been met in the past year.

Bush's decision to send in more troops came despite a report by the Iraq Study Group that called for the withdrawal of most U.S. combat troops by early 2008, with the Pesident claiming that re-establishing security in and around Baghdad was necessary to stave off an American "disaster."

The additional units that were sent in were given a new strategy and a new commander, Gen. David Petraeus, one of the authors of the Army's counter-insurgency field manual.

Petraeus aimed to improve day-to-day security for Iraqis and provide greater assistance against the al Qaeda in Iraq militant group, which took root in the country after the 2003 invasion that deposed Hussein and which claimed responsibility for some of the most notorious attacks in the insurgency that followed.

Neighborhoods were walled off from each other by concrete barriers. American troops took up permanent stations in districts across the capital -- alongside Iraqi security forces -- and targeted districts where insurgents took shelter, assembled car bombs and staged attacks.

Troops took on both Sunni and Shiite insurgents in the capital and the so-called Baghdad belts, areas in nearby Anbar and Diyala provinces and the southern Baghdad outskirts.

But one of the biggest changes was the emergence of the so-called Awakening movement, predominantly among Iraq's Sunni Arab population -- which has been the backbone of the insurgency against U.S. troops.

Sunni sheiks in western Iraq, who had supported the insurgency, turned against the jihadists and began policing their own towns -- soon with U.S. help.

The movement spread to Baghdad, the Diyala province and other regions, with the U.S. military sponsoring a key component of the grass-roots effort -- the Concerned Local Citizens program. CLC members, many of whom are paid by the U.S. military, resemble a neighborhood watch group and conduct security support tasks, such as manning checkpoints.

U.S. and Iraqi officials hope to integrate members of the CLCs into security forces and other occupations. The CLCs and Awakening Council groups have attracted the attention of al Qaeda in Iraq, which has attacked people who have aligned themselves with them.

Petraeus told a Senate hearing in September that while the central government in Baghdad remains stalled, "there are steps just happening, actions being taken that give you hope they can indeed reconcile with one another."

At the same time, the U.S. military accused neighboring Iran of exacerbating the country's sectarian warfare by arming militias from Iraq's Shiite majority, some of which have long-standing ties to Tehran, and of using Iranian-made weaponry against American troops.

By the end of 2007, the two biggest Shiite factions and their fighters were skirmishing in southern Iraq.

But anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr then ordered his followers to avoid bloodshed after clashes in the holy city of Karbala and in Baghdad that left dozens dead. About the same time, the bloodshed nationwide began to decline dramatically.

Two December figures serve as examples of the recent drop: the number of U.S. troop deaths that month was 23, the second-lowest monthly death toll of the war, and the number of civilian deaths was 481 -- the lowest monthly total of the year, according to the Interior Ministry.

In his end of the year letter to troops, Petraeus said attacks per week were "down approximately 60 percent from June 2007 and are now at a level last seen consistently in the early summer of 2005."

As Year Two of the "surge" dawns, however, the question that remains is what happens when these extra forces gradually return home. Pentagon planners say troops already ordered into the war zone for 15 months are wearing down, and their equipment is wearing out at accelerated rates.

Gen. George Casey, the chief of staff of the Army, told a congressional committee in September that extended deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan "are not sustainable" and had left the service "out of balance."

Gen. James Conway, the commandant of the Marine Corps, told reporters in December that extended duty in the deserts of Iraq put his service at risk of losing its focus on its historical mission of amphibious warfare.

But the war continues relentlessly.

This week, the U.S. military kicked off a new anti-insurgent campaign called Phantom Phoenix, with sub-offensives launched in northern Iraq and the southern Baghdad tier.

Instability in the Kurdish region continues to threaten stability. Turkish warplanes recently have been targeting Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, separatists in northern Iraq.

Those militants have been conducting cross-border attacks from Iraq into Turkey, and the Turkish government decided to respond with military action, despite a diplomatic full-court press to avoid that track.

And later this year, residents of the Kirkuk area, an oil-rich and ethnically diverse city and region, are scheduled to vote in a referendum that would determine whether it would be incorporated into Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government. Kurds consider Kirkuk as historically part of Kurdistan, but Arabs and Turkmens who live in the region disagree.

While the recent decline in deaths heartens the U.S. and Iraqi governments, officials acknowledge that 2007 was the deadliest year for U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians. More than 900 Americans died in Iraq, and the Iraqi Interior Ministry put the civilian toll at 16,000-plus. Video Watch what is driving up U.S. casualties in Iraq »

One sign of change is that Britain, which has been in command of coalition forces in the south, has been whittling down its troop deployment, which is expected to be about 2,500 by later this year, and handing security responsibility over to Iraqi troops. The U.S. military hopes to replicate that transition.

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Asked at a press conference last week about his expectations for 2008, Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner, the Multi-National Division-Iraq spokesman, said there is a general sentiment now that there will be "significant challenges" in the coming year. He predicts a silver lining: the emergence of more allies and better Iraqi security forces.

"2008 will see a continued tough fight but one where we will see increasing commitment and involvement of Iraqi forces and the Iraqi people. And that should be encouraging." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

All About IraqAl Qaeda in IraqGeorge W. BushArmed ForcesIraq War

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