BAGHDAD — U.S. military commanders in Iraq on Tuesday praised the lowest levels of violence in Iraq since 2003, saying that Iraqi forces were making security gains while American forces prepare for final departure at the end of the year.
Overall security incidents fell by one-fifth in 2010, compared to 2009, despite a host of security incidents in recent months that have plagued Iraqi Christians, the assassinations of dozens of officials, and spectacular Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) attacks such as the 16-bomb day in November that left 70 dead in Baghdad.
"There are many indicators of violence: attack trends (and) casualty trends, but certainly by all measures we believe there was about a 20 percent decrease in 2010 from 2009," said Lt. Gen. Robert Cone, the deputy commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, as he handed authority on Tuesday to the last general likely to hold that post, Lt. Gen. Frank Helmick. "That's not to say we are happy with the security environment, that's not to say there isn't room for improvement."
Whatever the U.S. tabulation, many Iraqis are not yet convinced that security has improved, after eight years of violence that peaked in 2006-2007 with a death toll of 3,000 each month. Since then, according to official U.S. figures, the overall rate of violence today has dropped by 90 percent, but Iraqis still face deadly disruptions to their daily lives, and blame the government for lack of accountability.
"It is clear, and it needs no analysis, that the security situation is out of control," wrote Salam al-Yasiri, in a comment on the Kitabat Arabic language website. "Despite big funds that have been thrown in this direction ... explosions are still continuous, innocent victims are still falling, and government statements haven't changed - they are still pointing the finger of blame at Al Qaeda (in Iraq) or the orphans of the Baath (Party), without once admitting the possibility of failure."
IRAQIS TAKING GREATER ROLE
Cone, however, credited Iraqis for taking a greater role in controlling the security situation. The drop in violence, he pointed out, took place despite a steep cut in American troop strength during the year from 100,000 to less than 50,000 today, and despite an Iraqi election last March that resulted in nine months of political wrangling before a government was formed.
"That decrease (in violence) took place with the Iraqis playing the predominant role," said Cone. "The Iraqis clearly shouldered a much greater share of the load" during the political transition.
Key posts remain vacant, however. The ministers of defense, interior, and national security, as well as Iraq's intelligence chief, have yet to be named.
Continued Iraqi ambivalence is reflected in an online poll of 500 respondents, published Monday on the Iraqi website Babnews.
"The majority does not believe that the government will achieve a good level of security in the near future," Babnews reported. One-third of respondents said there was "hope" there could be security "in the near future."
CONCERN ABOUT IRAQI READINESS AS U.S. TROOPS WITHDRAW
While noting security improvements, the latest quarterly report to Congress of the U.S. government watchdog agency, known as the Special Investigator General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR), was marked by concerns about Iraqi readiness to take full control when American forces leave.
"Despite this statistical good news, insurgents continued to wage a campaign of intimidation and assassination," especially against government officials and police, the Jan. 30 report stated.
As U.S. troops prepare to leave, "one of the main responsibilities of Iraq's security forces will be suppressing such violence," the report said. "This quarter, several U.S. observers noted real or potential gaps in Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) capabilities that could affect its ability to lock in hard-won security gains."
"These are not new revelations; they are issues we work fairly constantly," said Cone about the SIGIR report. "The problem at hand today has to do with the counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations, and the Iraqis are functioning, we think, at a competent level. They are doing this on their own."
Cone said U.S. and Iraqi forces had also degraded the abilities of AQI and other militants, despite continued attacks.
"Al Qaeda (in Iraq) and many of these groups are still capable of conducting violent acts, but I think the difference between now and ... a year ago is that they really have to harbor their resources and focus for limited periods of time, and they can't sustain these violence levels for a long period of time," said Cone.
PLEA FROM RESIDENTS
Those improvements had not been felt by one group of tribal sheikhs from the Tarmiyah district of northwest Baghdad, however, who took their complaints to Parliament in mid-January. They met with speaker Usama al-Nujaifi, and told him of a "decline in security" and demanded "that their neighborhoods be secured" from targeted assassinations "by men in Iraqi military uniforms."
The government "must protect the people," Nujaifi told the group, according to the parliament website. "(It) must control security and stop the criminal terrorist attacks so that the (Iraqi) citizen will not feel that his government is unable to protect him."
(Special correspondent Sahar Issa contributed)