BAGHDAD, Iraq—The number of U.S. troops killed in Iraq has plummeted recently and attacks on American troops have dropped significantly, prompting U.S. military officials to wonder whether to hail the drop-off as a sign of success or brace for renewed attacks later.
At the same time, many Iraqis are alarmed by a rise in attacks on Iraqi civilians and security personnel. They fear that the war is turning inward, toward more intense sectarian violence that could lead to civil war.
If the trend continues, March—with 22 U.S. soldiers killed by hostile fire so far—will be the least deadly month since February 2004, when the figure was 14, according to icasualties.org, a Web site that tracks coalition military deaths in Iraq. By way of contrast, 54 American soldiers were killed by hostile fire in January and 125 last November.
The number of attacks on U.S. troops since Iraq's Jan. 30 elections is hovering at about 50 a week, far below that of the period around elections and about 10 fewer than what had become the norm, American officials say.
Insurgents "may have come to the realization that hitting the (U.S.) military targets isn't particularly effective. We're still here," said a top American military spokesman in Baghdad, Lt. Col. Steven Boylan, who pointed to the elections, the growing competence of Iraqi security forces and several decisive U.S. military offenses during the past year as factors.
There's also been a string of high-profile captures of insurgent leaders and a recent stretch of heavy rains, which probably kept some fighters—lacking the technological advantages of American soldiers—at home.
Like other military officials in Baghdad, however, Boylan stopped short of saying the insurgency had been routed.
"It's less effective," he said. "That's my perception."
But interviews with a wide range of Iraqis—including analysts, merchants, professors, soldiers, clerics and politicians—indicated concern that the violence is shifting toward a fight between religious sects. They said many neighborhoods were being effectively divided between Shiite Muslim and Sunni Muslim enclaves, and that January's parliamentary elections, which Shiites and Kurds embraced but Sunnis generally boycotted, underscored Iraq's divisions.
Shiite and Sunni Muslims have long been bitter rivals, and Iraq's Sunni minority repressed the country's larger Shiite population under Saddam Hussein, a fellow Sunni. Until now, however, the Shiites have largely refrained from counterattacking the Sunni insurgency.
"This is the start of dividing the country; this is the start of a bigger civil war. The election in Iraq emphasized the sectarian divide of the Iraqi people," said Ghassan al Atiyyah, a lecturer at Baghdad University and a secular Shiite politician. "It is a time of militias."
One illegal arms dealer said he was selling more weapons to Shiites looking to protect themselves from Sunnis.
"The demand these days is very high," said Abu Mohammed, 53, who operates out of a series of Baghdad safe houses. As he spoke, two of his young sons brought out a jumble of AK-47s from a sugar bag.
"We have many political and religious groups, and each one wants to build its own security forces," said Mohammed, who spoke on condition that his full name not be used.
Hours after that interview this week, Mohammed's driveway was full of cars. A sedan pulled up, and men unloaded crates of weapons from its trunk. Business looked brisk.
While U.S. officials in Baghdad once released figures showing numbers of civilians killed by insurgents, they aren't currently doing so. A senior American military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, acknowledged that as deaths of U.S. soldiers have dropped, there's been a post-election rise in attacks on Iraqi civilians and security forces. Most of that violence is thought to be carried out by Sunni insurgents against Shiite civilians and Shiite military recruits.
The deadliest insurgent attack since the United States invaded Iraq two years ago happened last month in the Shiite town of Hillah. At least 116 people were killed, most of them military and police recruits.
"Will they start a civil war? I don't know if that much of a thought process has gone into it, I just don't know," the senior military official said. "We've uncorked a bottle and everybody's trying to figure out where they are ... you're talking about a lot of pent-up rage and frustration."
But much of the violence is a product of smaller incidents that largely go unreported beyond neighborhood rumors and gossip. Six weeks ago, for example, Ahmed Raysan, a barber in the Shiite Baghdad neighborhood of As Salam, was talking with some customers about how much they disliked Sunni insurgents. A couple of days later, a car pulled up in front of the shop. A man ran up behind Raysan, jabbed a small-caliber pistol in his mouth and fired, according to witnesses' accounts.
Raysan dropped to the ground; the bullet ricocheted around his mouth, shattering his jaw and destroying a row of teeth. As Raysan moaned and screamed, another gunman opened fire with an AK-47, hitting him four times in the leg.
"They targeted me that day because I am a Shiite," he said recently. On the wall behind his bed was a painting of Imam Ali, a figure revered by Shiites. Beneath it, an AK-47 leaned against the wall. "If I can take revenge I will," he said.
Others recount events that indicate that Shiites are increasingly willing to take action against alleged Sunni threats.
A neighborhood councilman, Kareem Gailon, a Shiite, received a death threat in January saying "death will find its way to you because we know about your cooperation and business with the Jews."
About 20 men from the neighborhood, armed with AK-47s, suspected that radical Sunnis from the Wahhabi sect were behind the note. They went to the closest Sunni mosque and told worshippers that if "Kareem is harmed you can blame only yourselves for what will happen ... you have only two or three Sunni mosques in this neighborhood. They will all disappear. There will be no more Sunnis here, there will be no more Wahhabis here," according to interviews with Gailon and others in the neighborhood.
Hazim Abdul Hamid, a political science professor at Baghdad's Mustansariya University, said the troubles weren't just in neighborhood streets.
"I know a Shiite man who is an academic dean—this is a man with a Ph.D.—who told me that if the Sunni do not submit by negotiations, then they will submit because we will hit them with our shoes," Hamid said.
(A special correspondent in Iraq who isn't named for security reasons contributed to this article.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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