Iraq closes one of its quietest post-invasion months

BAGHDAD — From the rickety upper deck of the small tour boat cruising the Tigris River, it was easy to imagine Baghdad as a peaceful city again.

The boat listed badly when it turned, the dock was old and rusty, and the Tigris was blemished by trash floating along its banks, but that didn't dim anyone's spirits on a sunny afternoon. Certainly not those of boat driver Muslim Hadi Naji, whose vessel had been anchored upriver, unused, for most of the decade.

"This is the first Eid we are operating," Naji said of the religious festival that ended for most Muslims on Monday, but which was being celebrated into Tuesday. "It's better than before, a lot better than before."

Iraq has just passed through what may be its least violent month since the U.S. invasion six and a half long years ago. Political violence remains a daily occurrence, but fewer Iraqi civilians, policemen and soldiers died in November than in any of the past 79 months, according to official figures. Two U.S. soldiers died of combat-related injuries.

Whether the relative quiet will last is anybody's guess. A massive bombing in downtown Baghdad on October 25, which killed at least 155 people and badly damaged government buildings, proved that al Qaida in Iraq, which claimed responsibility, is still active and Iraqi security is still porous.

Sectarian violence may have ebbed, but tensions remain raw, and an unresolved dispute over a long-delayed election law hasn't helped.

Sectarian killings, assassinations, and attacks on Iraqi journalists remain common. "Sticky bombs," adhered to the undersides of vehicles, are a weapon of choice, along with firearms, Katyusha rockets and roadside bombs.

Abu Nawas park, one of Baghdad's few green refuges, was jammed with people and had a carnival air. Hawkers sold nuts, tea and balloons, horse-drawn carriages offered rides; and children chased one another around playgrounds.

Azzam Ibrahim, his wife Nidhal Sachit, their two daughters and grandson were among those who voted — cautiously — with their feet, and visited the park along the Tigris with thousands of others Tuesday.

Exiting from their turn on the tour boat, Ibrahim said the family spent the first two days of Eid al Adha, the holiday that follows the holy pilgrimage to Mecca, "checking the pulse" of security, determining how safe it was to move around the city. Only in the final two days did they go out.

Ibrahim, an engineer, was hopeful for the future. His wife, however, was not. "Very bad," she said.

Farther south in Baghdad, cars and people streamed into the park around Lake Jadriyah even as the sun began to set.

Exactly how many Iraqis died in political violence in November, or any month, may never be known. Many killings and assassinations go unreported.

The Iraqi government released figures Tuesday showing that 122 Iraqis died from violence in November. The reported toll was 88 civilians, 22 policeman and 12 soldiers.

Iraq's Interior Ministry, however, has figures showing that 244 Iraqi civilians and security personnel died across the country in November, according to an official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak for the record.

The two accounts couldn't immediately be reconciled.

Even the larger toll is a far cry from the sectarian bloodshed of just a few years ago. In September 2006, 3,389 Iraqi civilians and 150 security forces died, according to the Web site

Brig. Gen. Stephen Lanza, a spokesman for Multi-National Force-Iraq, said in an e-mailed statement that "nationwide attacks remain at their lowest levels since before January 2004," and that security incidents are down 40 percent since U.S. combat troops left Iraqi cities on June 30.

While warning that "gains in security are reversible," Lanza attributed the improved situation to more capable Iraqi security forces and Iraqis' increasing inclination to settle their differences through the political process.

(McClatchy special correspondent Mohammed al Dulaimy contributed to this article.)


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