WASHINGTON — Two statistics sum up the last year in Iraq: 2007 will end as the deadliest for American troops since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, with more than 900 dead. At the same time, December — with just 16 hostile-fire deaths as of Friday — very likely will be the month with the second fewest American deaths of the war so far.
Those numbers bookend a year in which violence against U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians began a dramatic, breathtaking decline after years of steady increases.
The decline in violence was across the board. The number of Iraqi civilians killed in Baghdad from bombings and explosions in December was half the number that were killed last January; the number of bodies found in the capital's streets was down by nearly 75 percent compared with the beginning of 2007.
The year still had its spectacular violence. In August, the worst bombings of the war struck two villages in northern Iraq, claiming more than 300 lives. Three car bombs in Amarah, in southern Iraq, killed 42 people earlier this month. The American death toll after nearly five years of war stands at 3,900.
The turnaround was unmistakable nonetheless during the final six months of the year, after the U.S. completed a controversial increase in the number of troops in Iraq by 30,000. The military and civilian death rate declined even outside Baghdad, according to American military statistics, dropping from a peak in May of more than 2,000 to just more than 500 in November.
With the additional American troops scheduled to be gone from Iraq by August, U.S. and Iraqi officials say that the challenge in 2008 will be to sustain the lower levels of violence.
"In some respects, the positive developments in the latter half of 2007 also represent the challenges of 2008," Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, said during a roundtable discussion earlier this week. "There will be the ongoing challenges of reconciliation. And if there is a single overarching issue that will determine the future of this country, that's it for me in one word."
The year didn't start out promising. Chaos dominated the capital, and Iraqi civilian deaths and American casualties rose steadily through May. Indeed, the first half of the year was the deadliest six-month period of the war, with 576 U.S. soldiers killed from enemy fire and other causes, according to statistics gathered by Iraq Coalition Casualties, a Web site that tracks violence trends in Iraq.
President Bush announced plans to increase troops on Jan. 10 and new service members began arriving a month later with a strategy that called on them to "clear, hold and build": clear neighborhoods of insurgents, hold them to prevent gunmen from returning and build new services such as water treatment facilities that would make life easier.
With American troops stationed around neighborhoods and alongside local Iraqi forces, car bombs became less frequent, dropping from 45 in February to 32 in March. But in other ways the carnage hadn't really declined: The average number of unidentified bodies found each month dumped on the streets still hovered just below 500, according to statistics that McClatchy compiled.
By April and May, the insurgents and militias appeared to have adjusted their tactics to the troop buildup. In May, car bombs and sectarian killings rose. More than 1,000 Iraqis were killed in Baghdad, including 736 whose bodies were found in the streets.
That same month, 126 U.S. service members died in Iraq, 120 of them from hostile fire. That made May the third deadliest month for the American military since the war began.
With four of the five additional combat brigades in place, Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, called the violence unacceptable. "I am not trying in any way, shape or form to indicate that this is a satisfactory situation whatsoever," he said in late April.
Then came June, and two crucial events took place. The last of the five combat brigades arrived, and the United States began forming so-called awakening councils in Sunni Muslim neighborhoods in Baghdad. The new awakening councils, which also were known as concerned local citizens, were modeled after similar groups in Anbar province, where the local tribes turned on the extremist group al Qaida in Iraq and pushed it out of the province.
Former supporters of the insurgency began working alongside American troops in exchange for control of their neighborhoods. The U.S. paid the volunteers about $300 a month.
American troop deaths began to fall, to 101 in June. Instead of an average of 30 car bombs a month in Baghdad, there were 17. For the first time in 2007, the number of Iraqis killed in Baghdad by bombings and explosions fell below 200; that number had averaged 339 in the first five months of the year, according to McClatchy statistics.
The number of unidentified bodies also declined, to 554.
In August, a more enduring drop began. With all the "surge" troops in place, troops were holding neighborhoods. They confiscated weapons. They erected blast walls that closed off neighborhoods from one another. They held up once-unknown tribal leaders and hailed them as the new local leaders of Iraq.
Most notably, firebrand Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al Sadr announced a six-month cease-fire, telling his followers to stop attacking Sunnis and end their battle for control of the capital.
That month, U.S. troop deaths fell to 84 and the decline continued through the remainder of the year.
Iraqi civilian deaths also fell. In August, 206 Baghdadis died in bombings and explosions; the next month that figure fell by 22 percent. By November, the figure had dropped to 76, a 63 percent drop from August.
In the first 26 days of December, 76 Baghdadis died in explosions; 103 unidentified bodies were found in the streets — that number had been 428 in August.
Not all Baghdad residents are convinced that violence is becoming a thing of the past. They note that their city has been transformed into a series of segregated neighborhoods, with Sunni and Shiites afraid to cross into each other's turf.
Nearly 4 million Iraqis — most of them from Baghdad — are displaced internally or have sought refuge outside the country. It's unclear when they can go home; members of the opposing sect occupy many of their houses.
Thirty-five percent of the 1.5 million Iraqi refugees in Syria fled during the July to October period, even as violence ebbed in Baghdad, according to a recent United Nations survey.
Ghalib Daham, a 50-year-old Sunni from the Sunni neighborhood of Adamiyah in western Baghdad, said that even though security was better in his neighborhood, he still wouldn't shop in a nearby Shiite neighborhood.
"Trust, once lost, is not easy to regain," he said.
(McClatchy special correspondents Mohammed al Dulaimy and Sahar Issa contributed to this report from Baghdad.)