Baghdad Violence Declines In Security Push, Iraq Says

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
New York Times
March 15, 2007
By Damien Cave
BAGHDAD, March 14 — With the first full month of the Baghdad security plan completed, the Iraqi military announced Wednesday that the level of violence in the capital had decreased substantially. But the degree of improvement was unclear, partly because of the continued confusion over casualty counts here, and an American general cautioned against reading too much into optimistic reports, given that January and February were two of the worst months for car bombings since the invasion.
The Iraqi review came from Brig. Qassim al-Moussawi, a military spokesman, who said at a news conference that civilian deaths since the start of the plan on Feb. 14 were counted at 265 in Baghdad, down from 1,440 in the four weeks before. He said 36 car bombings struck the capital over the past four weeks, down from 56.
He attributed the declines in violence to “the efforts of our brave soldiers,” whom he described as “the sons of our nation.”
It was not clear what his statistics were based on, though, and they may not have taken into account the bodies found strewn around the capital each day. An analysis by The New York Times found more than 450 Iraqi civilians killed or found dead during the same 28-day period, based on initial daily reports from Interior Ministry and hospital officials.
Historically, these daily counts have underestimated the death toll by 50 percent or more when compared with independent studies by the United Nations, which rely on figures from the Iraqi Health Ministry and bodies found at morgues.
There is little doubt among American and Iraqi officials that the new security plan has decreased some forms of violence, especially the mass kidnappings and assassinations that generally become apparent from the bodies that show up at the morgue. Residents in some Baghdad neighborhoods also report that certain shopping districts have started to come back to life.
For American troops in particular, the past month has reshuffled Iraq’s deck of risks. The overall number of American soldiers killed in Iraq under hostile circumstances since Feb. 14 fell to 66, from 87 between Jan. 14 and Feb. 13. But with more soldiers in the capital on patrol and in precinctlike bases in neighborhoods, a higher proportion of the American deaths have been in Baghdad — 36 percent after Feb. 14 compared with 24 percent in the previous month. Also over the past four weeks, a higher proportion of deaths from roadside bombs have occurred in the capital — 45 percent compared with 39 percent.
American officials, remembering early gains that slipped away during previous security plans, have warned against simplistic conclusions of victory or defeat.
Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, the top spokesman for the United States military here, sounded a cautious note on Wednesday at a briefing in which he provided his own assessment of the security plan’s first month. “We know that there has been a decrease in violence, but things still need to get better,” he said. “We still need to be patient.”
General Caldwell did not provide counts of civilian deaths. He said assassinations were down 50 percent, but that February “was an all-time high” for car bombs. According to American military figures, 44 car bombs struck Baghdad in February, out of 77 nationwide. In January, 40 car bombs exploded in the capital, out of 73 nationwide. Only one other stretch appeared to be worse: during eight days in late April and early May 2005, 60 car bombs exploded throughout the country — a rate that has yet to be repeated, according to military officials.
Car bombs have been a hallmark of the Sunni insurgency for years, and they are among the most difficult weapons to stop. General Caldwell nonetheless said that eliminating such high-profile attacks was now the primary goal of American troops across Baghdad. Troops have focused raids on suspected car bomb factories, and blast walls have been set up around Baghdad markets to minimize casualties from car bombs that manage to get through.
General Caldwell’s comments — combined with praise for the cooperation of Shiite officials and negotiators for the Mahdi Army, the Shiite militia loyal to the cleric Moktada al-Sadr — seemed to suggest that the military was returning to its former strategy of concentrating on Sunni extremists. That would represent a change from American officials’ comments in the past few months that identified Shiite militias as Iraq’s largest threat.
General Caldwell declined to answer a question about whether any recent attacks or assassinations could be attributed to the Mahdi militia, and he said car bombs from radical Sunnis had become Iraq’s most sinister source of sectarian violence.
As Sunnis have continued to attack, General Caldwell said, Iraqis in Shiite neighborhoods have exercised restraint. He provided two examples: the decline in assassinations typically conducted by Shiite groups as a form of vengeance and intimidation, and the joint Iraqi-American negotiations in the Sadr City district of Baghdad that he said had laid the groundwork for a security operation there that had faced little resistance from residents.
General Caldwell said that 12 reconstruction projects, worth about $3.5 million, had been approved for Sadr City. The biggest-ticket item was an amusement park on the neighborhood’s eastern edge that had been requested by the district’s mayor and other neighborhood officials. He said the scale of killing over the past week, even with an increase in deaths in attacks on Shiites making a pilgrimage to Karbala, was still below what occurred in the fourth week of the two previous efforts to secure the capital.
“This past week is when normally the levels of murders and executions have gone right back to the previous levels,” he said, adding that officials were “very encouraged” that so far, that had not happened this time.
On Wednesday, a car bomb exploded in the Sunni Yarmouk district, killing one person and wounding four. In the northern city of Kirkuk, a suicide bomber exploded a bomb near a restaurant at 11 a.m., killing 10 people and wounding 15, the police said. In Hilla, a city south of Baghdad, gunmen killed three off-duty policemen. Near Tikrit, two American soldiers were killed in separate bombings near their vehicles, American military officials said.
A few miles from Tikrit, the bodies of Saddam Hussein’s sons, Uday and Qusay, were unearthed and reburied outside a marble tomb where their father’s body was interred after he was hanged in December, relatives said Wednesday.
The reburial in Awja, the village where Mr. Hussein was born, seemed likely to concentrate interest at what had already become a shrine to a leader who had come to viewed by some as a martyr.
Khalid W. Hassan and Ahmad Fadam contributed reporting from Baghdad, and Andrew W. Lehren from New York.