BAGHDAD — Violence hit a yearly low in Baghdad during October, according to end-of-the-month statistics compiled Wednesday, even as killings elsewhere raised worrisome questions about whether security improvements will hold if the United States begins drawing down its forces next spring.
American troop deaths in October declined for the fifth straight month — to 36, the lowest monthly total this year and the seventh lowest in 56 months of war, according to Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, which tracks deaths and injuries among troops in Iraq.
Of October's deaths, 27 were caused by enemy action, Iraq Coalition Casualty Count reported on its Web site. That total continued a steep drop-off in U.S. combat deaths that began in June, when the U.S. military completed its so-called surge of troops into Iraq. U.S. deaths by hostile action peaked in May at 120 and have declined every month since.
Civilian deaths in Baghdad also reached a low point for the year during October, statistics compiled by McClatchy Newspapers show. In all, 114 people died in explosions in the Iraqi capital during the month, according to the statistics, while the number of unidentified bodies found on Baghdad's streets totaled 168. Both figures are well below the peak months this year of 520 in February and 736 in May.
Even so, the capital remained a dangerous place. While car bombs declined to 15 from September's 19, the number of blasts caused by improvised explosive devices increased by more than 60 percent, from 30 to 48. The number of people injured in explosions in the capital rose 19 percent, from 378 in September to 450 in October, according to the McClatchy statistics, which are gathered daily from police and other official sources, but which probably undercount violence in the capital.
Of the 27 U.S. combat deaths, at least 19 occurred in Baghdad, according to Iraq Coalition Casualty Count. Of the six months with fewer combat casualties, five occurred in the first 12 months of the war.
A U.S. spokesman said the military wasn't prepared to declare victory in the capital. He said the decline in violence is the result of several interconnected factors, any of which could unravel.
For one, anti-American Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al Sadr could call off the cease-fire he declared, which could lead to renewed attacks on American forces. A major bombing by al Qaida in Iraq, a Sunni-dominated group, could spur retaliation attacks by Shiite militias. Or one of the new local leaders working with U.S. troops to root out al Qaida in Iraq insurgents could be assassinated, destroying the fragile peace in his neighborhood.
"We are not declaring victory," said Col. Steve Boylan, the spokesman for Gen. David Petraeus, the top military commander in Iraq who in September told Congress that U.S. troops could begin coming home by March. "It's too early."
Two other factors could indicate trouble ahead.
Violence remains high in provinces outside Baghdad. In Baqouba, the capital of Diyala province, police said at least 17 decapitated bodies were found this week, and a suicide bomber on a bicycle detonated himself in front of a police center, killing at least 27.
Police blame the violence on al Qaida in Iraq, many of whose members are believed to have escaped a U.S. offensive over the summer and remain active in the province.
In the southern Shiite-dominated cities of Karbala and Basra, residents describe their communities as open battlefields between rival Shiite factions fighting for control.
U.S. officials also are concerned that the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki has done little to capitalize on the relative calming of the capital. Virtually no action has been taken on benchmarks that once were the U.S. standard for progress in Iraq.
Maliki's government also has been slow to incorporate Sunni volunteers into the Shiite-dominated security forces.
In many places throughout the capital, local groups, not official security forces, provide protection. Teenagers guard the entrances to neighborhoods while tribal leaders meet with rival sects to negotiate cease-fires. U.S. troops protect water supplies and electricity generators.
A report by the Government Accountability Office in Washington warned Tuesday that the U.S. and Iraqi governments haven't taken advantage of the drop in violence.
Other observers, while acknowledging that violence is down in the capital, say they believe that Baghdad remains a battleground.
"The 'surge' in Baghdad has reduced the level of killings and major violence, but not ended sectarian displacement and tension," Anthony Cordesman, an Iraq analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote recently. "The end result is an unstable mosaic of Shiite, Sunni and mixed zones that can explode into violence if the U.S. leaves (and perhaps if it stays), or simply keep Iraq's most important city and province unstable and divided."
There's no consensus about why violence has declined so rapidly in the capital or why U.S. combat casualties have dropped so dramatically.
U.S. officials partially credit raids against al Qaida in Iraq bomb-making factories and say the detentions and deaths of insurgent leaders have unbalanced the organization.
A rebellion by tribal leaders in Anbar province against al Qaida in Iraq, which drove the insurgent group from the province, also played a role in reducing U.S. casualties.
But some troops believe that the decline in U.S. casualties also is due to some groups' decision to avoid fighting U.S. forces head on or to leave Baghdad to fight rival groups in nearby provinces.
Some residents believe the drop in Iraqi deaths in the capital has happened because so much ethnic cleansing has left simply fewer people to kill.
Outside Baghdad, residents say they believe violence is getting worse, though statistics weren't available to confirm their impressions.
"The explosions and the bombs appear from time to time, and the security forces don't react the way they should," said Asow Mohammad al Shahwani, 30, a bookshop owner in the northern mixed Kurdish/Arab city of Kirkuk. "Many neighborhoods are out of government and security forces' control."
Ali Mazin, 39, a teacher in Basra who feels the violence is worsening, said he believes it's too late for Iraq's central government to assert authority there.
"The city is an open one, and I see no role for the local or the central government in this city. The Iranians are playing a greater role in our governorate" than the Iraqi government, he said.
ON THE WEB
To see the statistics, go to icasualties.org.
(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondents Laith Hammoudi in Baghdad, Hassan Jobouri in Tikrit and Ali Omar in Basra contributed to this report.)