BAGHDAD — Despite U.S. claims that violence is down in the Iraqi capital, U.S. military officers are offering a bleak picture of Iraq's future, saying they've yet to see any signs of reconciliation between Sunni and Shiite Muslims despite the drop in violence.
Without reconciliation, the military officers say, any decline in violence will be temporary and bloodshed could return to previous levels as soon as the U.S. military cuts back its campaign against insurgent attacks.
That downbeat assessment comes despite a buildup of U.S. troops that began five months ago Wednesday and has seen U.S. casualties reach the highest sustained levels since the United States invaded Iraq nearly four and a half years ago.
Violence remains endemic, with truck bombs in two northern Iraqi villages on Tuesday claiming the largest single death toll of the war — more than 300 confirmed dead and counting. North of Baghdad, another truck bomb destroyed a key bridge on the road linking the capital to Mosul, the first successful bridge attack since June.
And while top U.S. officials insist that 50 percent of the capital is now under effective U.S. or government control, compared with 8 percent in February, statistics indicate that the improvement in violence is at best mixed.
U.S. officials say the number of civilian casualties in the Iraqi capital is down 50 percent. But U.S. officials declined to provide specific numbers, and statistics gathered by McClatchy Newspapers don't support the claim.
The number of car bombings in July actually was 5 percent higher than the number recorded last December, according to the McClatchy statistics, and the number of civilians killed in explosions is about the same.
How long the U.S. will be willing to maintain its military commitment without any sign of progress on the political front will be a key question for Congress and the administration in September, when the U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Gen. David Petraeus, is required to provide his assessment of the situation.
"If we can't have political reform that can precede more rapidly than has been the case already," said Col. Toby Green, the operation officer for the U.S. command in Baghdad, "then there is always the possibility that we won't realize what can be."
When President Bush announced plans to increase U.S. troop strength in Iraq to help calm Baghdad, U.S. officials had hoped that any decrease in violence would lead to greater willingness from Shiite and Sunni political leaders to reach an accommodation.
But that hasn't happened. Sunnis have accused the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki of making no effort to stop Shiite militias from forcing Sunnis from their homes. Sunni ministers have withdrawn from the government in protest.
In the meantime, the most touted success of the campaign — an alliance between U.S. forces and some Sunni insurgent groups against al Qaida in Iraq — has angered many in the Maliki government, who accuse the United States of supporting groups that could ultimately turn against the government.
Former Sunni insurgents and tribal leaders will expect some kind of payoff for having turned on al Qaida, said Lt. Col. Richard Welch, who works primarily with Sunni tribal leaders and has negotiated with insurgents. Maliki's government, however, has been hesitant to grant concessions, he said.
"Reconciliation is a goal, it's a process, it's the end result of what we'd like to see, but it could take generations — and that is if people were serious about it," Welch said.
Welch said it took him two weeks to persuade the government to agree to incorporate more than 1,700 Sunni fighters into Interior Ministry forces in the western Baghdad suburb of Abu Ghraib after they'd turned against al Qaida.
He also said the Shiite government's inability to deliver services to Sunni neighborhoods is a problem.
"Politically there is still corruption and sectarianism in some of the police security forces," Welch said. "Politically, the government doesn't seem to be able effectively to deliver services in a way that dramatically improves their situation."
Welch said he remains concerned about whether the government will be willing to take steps to resolve a number of political issues when parliament returns from its August recess.
"Are they going to be ready to tackle the hard issues?" he said.
Military officers serving in Iraq say much of the difficulties they're encountering are owed to mistakes that U.S. officials made in the early years of the war when the Coalition Provisional Authority dissolved the Iraqi army and banned many members of Saddam Hussein's Baathist party from serving in government.
The actions drove many of those affected into resistance groups against the new government and U.S. forces.
"I think we tried to build the house before we built the foundation," Welch said, adding that the current U.S. strategy is "four years overdue."
U.S. officials have said that the new security plan needs time to work. But many have expressed disappointment at the continued sectarian violence.
The military has been trying to stanch that violence by building walls between neighborhoods and around potential bombing targets. But bombings and sectarian violence still take place.
The number of Iraqis killed in attacks changed only marginally in July when compared with December — down seven, from 361 to 354, according to McClatchy statistics.
No pattern of improvement is discernible for violence during the five months of the surge. In January, the last full month before the surge began, 438 people were killed in the capital in bombings. In February, that number jumped to 520. It declined in March to 323, but jumped again in April, to 414.
Violence remained virtually unchanged in May, when 404 were killed. The lowest total came in June, the first month U.S. officials said all the new American troops were in place, with just 190 dead, but then swung back up in July, with 354 dead.
One bright spot has been the reduction in the number of bodies found on the streets, considered a sign of sectarian violence. That number was 44 percent lower in July, compared to December. In July, the average body count per day was 18.6, compared with 33.2 in December, two months before the surge.
But the reason for that decline isn't clear. Some military officers believe that it may be an indication that ethnic cleansing has been completed in many neighborhoods and that there aren't as many people to kill.
One officer noted that U.S. officials believe Baghdad once had a population that was 65 percent Sunni. The current U.S. estimate is that Shiites now make up 75 percent to 80 percent of the city.
Whatever the rate of violence, however, military officers believe that military progress will last only if there's political reconciliation.
Lt. Col. Douglas Ollivant, a planner for the U.S. military command in Baghdad, described the current strategy as "emergency medicine."
The military is "putting on tourniquets, things that are going to leave scars and are messy and we know that," he said. But ultimately the healing has to come from the Iraqi government.
"Baghdad is to Iraq what Paris is to France," he said. "You change Baghdad, you change Iraq."