Does a calmer Iraq mean that U.S. troops can come home?

Protesters burn an American flag Friday in Sadr City. Tens of thousands of Shiite faithful streamed out of mosques to join protests against a security agreement with the United States.
Protesters burn an American flag Friday in Sadr City. Tens of thousands of Shiite faithful streamed out of mosques to join protests against a security agreement with the United States. Karim Kadim / AP

BAGHDAD — After weeks of relative calm, two questions are being asked in war-torn Iraq and in the United States:

Will it last? And when can American forces start coming home?

Real peace, of course, has hardly broken out, and the improved security environment may be fleeting. But recent substantial gains by the Iraqi army, flagging insurgent violence and civilians reclaiming a sense of confidence have produced expectations that are higher than at any time since 2003.

It's increasingly reasonable to assume that Iraq's security environment will continue to improve — slowly, maybe at the margins and with the chance that things could go south fast.

Generals and politicians avoid responding directly to questions about troop withdrawals because an answer would determine whether America stays here indefinitely as an occupier or leaves in a way yet to be decided. Indeed, many Iraqis believe that the Status of Forces Agreement being negotiated with Washington is a pretext to allow a permanent U.S. military presence, a charge that American officials deny. The agreement would establish a continued U.S. presence in Iraq once the United Nations' permissions expire Dec. 31.

One clue about withdrawal is what's already on the record.

Gen. David Petraeus told Congress that after the last "surge" combat brigade leaves Iraq in July, there'll be a 45-day period for him to assess the situation and make recommendations for further reductions. Over the last few months, some 12,000 troops have returned to the U.S. without being replaced.

Petraeus will present his recommendations to his civilian and military superiors in Washington and at Central Command this fall. But as he noted in April, this approach "does not, to be sure, allow establishment of a set withdrawal timeline."

Emotions here about the recent calm range from frustration to resignation to hope.

That hope appears at all encourages the government and its American sponsors. There's no denying the recent military gains. Insurgents still attack, but not as often and not as lethally. Iraqi forces are bigger and more aggressive. One senior U.S. administration official in Baghdad, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk for publication, was moved this week to insist that Iraq's recent safety record "ain't a lull. It's a crisp decline now 17 months in duration."

Despite the encouraging signs, Iraqi and U.S. officials know that much more needs to be done before peace can be declared.

Some parts of Iraq — around the northern city of Mosul, for instance — remain contested between multinational forces and insurgents. Military analysts verge on predicting a high-profile attack in or around Mosul with mass casualties.

In addition, insurgents of all stripes have changed their tactics — using female suicide bombers instead of car bombs and other explosives.

Even if recent events don't portend a permanent change, nearly all the numbers the past few weeks suggest that Iraq's center finally may be holding. Of most interest to Americans is the figure 19: the number of U.S. troops who died here in May. It's a still-grim but welcome low point since the war began in March 2003. Through the first five months of the year, 179 American troops died, well below the 475 killed during the same period a year ago.

Iraqi casualty figures also have leveled off. Iraqi government figures put the total number of violent deaths for the first five months at this year at 7,854, up slightly from 7,829 in the same period last year. However, officials point out that major operations in the southern city of Basra in March and April swelled the total.

From May 15 to June 3 last year, 316 incidents marred stability in Baghdad. This year there were 68.

Evidence of near normalcy is widespread.

In central Baghdad, as carp lolled in a circular pool, Al Faris Restaurant owner Haj Hashim said he now served fried fish to 10 or 12 tables of customers a night, up from only two tables a month ago.

A mile or so away, bookseller Jumaa Mohammed says sales of his newspapers and paperbacks have jumped 60 percent from early this year and 80 percent from a year ago. Now he boasts a table to display them. Before they were spread on the sidewalk.

Between their two establishments, bookstore owner Daoud Mohammed is proud to show his translations of Proust, Melville, Pasternak and Shakespeare. He does so in the dark: power is out again. He sells around 10 books a day, down from about 100 three years ago, but more than earlier this year.

Several developments account for the relative tranquility.

The buildup of U.S. troops last year included the tactic of moving them off so-called forward operating bases and into command outposts closer to the people they're intended to protect. Iraqi forces have conducted successful operations in Basra and Sadr City, the teeming district of western Baghdad.

However, U.S. and British military transition teams worked with the forces, and coalition air support was brought in to help. Militants often say they could whip Iraqi security forces if it weren't for the backing of U.S. aircraft.

But U.S. officials say Iraqi troops succeeded because Iraq's army strength has swelled to 559,000 from around 400,000 a year ago. Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki gained street credibility by overseeing some operations himself.

The "Sunni Awakening" in formerly deadly Anbar province helped turn once-hostile forces into allies or at least mercenaries — since the U.S. has paid them handsomely — against al Qaida in Iraq. A cease-fire declared by cleric Muqtada al Sadr for his large and anti-occupation Mahdi Army militia seems to be holding.

Finally, the Iraqi people are fed up with the violence and are cooperating more with government forces.

"It's a perfect storm of conditions on the ground right now," says Michael Noonan, the managing director of the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, who served as an Army Reservist captain in northern Iraq in 2006-07.

In Basra, Vali Nasr, the author of "The Shia Revival," said the gains were real but that the situation remained fragile. "It depends on continued U.S. operations, but also effectively using the interim peace for state-building — provision of services, building infrastructure and jump-starting the economy," he wrote in an e-mail.

The most pessimistic scenario is that the sectarian tensions that have boiled over many times will simply be put on the back burner until enough American forces leave.

"The violence would have been much worse if Sadr hadn't called a cease-fire," said Joost Hiltermann, the Middle East project director for the International Crisis Group. "Sadr has taken a strategic decision to not contest, knowing in a military confrontation (with U.S.-backed Iraqi security forces) that he is unlikely to prevail, knowing that his chances are much better waiting out the storm and then taking what is left."

Many ordinary Iraqis, while somewhat buoyant, are waiting and seeing. Some suspect that the recent offensives are politically motivated to help certain parties in October's provincial elections.

Ali, who works for a government ministry and who asked that his family name not be used because he isn't authorized to speak to the press, voiced a common complaint among many Iraqis: "There are now so many (security) checkpoints that it takes so long to move even one kilometer. To me, it's not security, it's martial law."

Mohammed, the bookstore owner, agrees that security is better, "but we still have tension and fear."

He echoed a standard concern about the American presence: "Are they leaving or staying? Are they friends or occupiers? This is my main question. If they are friends, then American and Iraqi people are friends. If they have the intention of occupiers, it is a different matter."

Tharp reports for the Merced (Calif.) Sun-Star.

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