Iraq war violence down; root causes remain unresolved

By Robert H. Reid

BAGHDAD – Signs are emerging that Iraq has reached a turning point. Violence is down, armed extremists are in disarray, government confidence is rising and sectarian communities are gearing up for a battle at the polls rather than slaughter in the streets.

Those positive signs are attracting little attention in the United States, where the war-weary public is focused on the American presidential contest and skeptical of talk of success after so many years of unfounded optimism by the war’s supporters.

Unquestionably, the security and political situation in Iraq is fragile. U.S. commanders warn repeatedly that security gains are reversible.

Still, Iraq is by almost any measure safer today than at any time in the past three years. Fears that the country will disintegrate have receded – though they have not disappeared.

The wave of sectarian massacres that pushed the country to the brink of all-out civil war in 2006 has calmed.

Shiite-Sunni reprisal killings still occur. But gangs of Sunni and Shiite death squads no longer roam the streets at night with impunity, seeking out victims from the rival religious community.

Last month, at least 532 Iraqi civilians and security troopers were killed, according to figures compiled by The Associated Press from Iraqi police and military reports.

Although the number remains high, May’s total was down sharply from April’s figure of 1,080 and was the lowest monthly figure this year, according to the AP count. By comparison, the AP count showed at least 1,920 Iraqis died in January 2007.

American deaths last month – 19 including four non-combat fatalities – were the lowest monthly tally of the war. In May 2007, 126 American service members died.

Many Sunni insurgents have stopped fighting and turned against al-Qaida in Iraq, which U.S. commanders say still remains a threat.

But those Sunni groups – loosely organized and still armed – could resume the fight if the Shiite-dominated national leadership fails to deliver on promises of economic help and a share of power. Critics believe U.S. support for such groups, known collectively as “awakening councils,” could set the stage for future conflict.