WaPo editorial: Let’s face it, the casualty trends in Iraq are cause for hope; Update: Military believes AQI is crippled?

posted at 7:37 pm on October 14, 2007 by Allahpundit

The optimism that dare not speak its name:

A month [after Petraeus’s testimony], there isn’t much room for such debate, at least about the latest figures. In September, Iraqi civilian deaths were down 52 percent from August and 77 percent from September 2006, according to the Web site icasualties.org. The Iraqi Health Ministry and the Associated Press reported similar results. U.S. soldiers killed in action numbered 43 — down 43 percent from August and 64 percent from May, which had the highest monthly figure so far this year. The American combat death total was the lowest since July 2006 and was one of the five lowest monthly counts since the insurgency in Iraq took off in April 2004…

The trend could change quickly and tragically, of course. Casualties have dropped in the past for a few weeks only to spike again. There are, however, plausible reasons for a decrease in violence. Sunni tribes in Anbar province that once fueled the insurgency have switched sides and declared war on al-Qaeda. The radical Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr ordered a cease-fire last month by his Mahdi Army. Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the top day-to-day commander in Iraq, says al-Qaeda’s sanctuaries have been reduced 60 to 70 percent by the surge.

Even the AP felt moved to marvel at the daily snapshot yesterday. The WaPo piece is getting all the traffic in the ‘sphere today but it’s less important than this story, which is also optimistic and a must read in light of the reports a few days ago about the possibly waning influence of the Shiite militias in the south and Baghdad. Ammar al-Hakim is the son of and future successor to Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, leader of SCIRI and chief rival to Sadr for political power among the Shiites. Check out where, and with whom, he spent his Sunday:

In a major reconciliatory gesture, a leader from Iraq’s largest Shiite party paid a rare visit Sunday to the Sunni Anbar province, where he delivered a message of unity to tribal sheiks who have staged a U.S.-backed revolt against Al Qaeda militants in their region…

“Today, we must stand up and declare that Iraq is for all Iraqis,” said al-Hakim, son of Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, who was diagnosed with cancer last May and has been receiving chemotherapy treatment in neighboring Iran.

“We stand together in one trench to defeat Iraq’s enemies,” al-Hakim said, with his host, leader of the Anbar movement Ahmed Abu Risha standing next to him…

Al-Hakim later led officials from his party and dozens of Anbar sheiks in prayer, a significant display of religious unity.

I don’t want to make too much of a photo op but seeing one of the five or so most important Shiites in the country sharing a laugh with one of the five or so most important Sunnis is striking, and all to the good. Part of the reason for the gladhanding is that al-Hakim was quoted yesterday as calling again for a federalist system where government power would devolve from Baghdad to the provinces. That’s convenient for him given SCIRI’s influence over the south and its oil wells; that’s also why I couldn’t understand last week how, per the Times of London, the Iraqi army was able to assert itself so quickly in Basra when SCIRI obviously doesn’t want any central authority there. The visit to Anbar, in addition to the goodwill aspect of it, surely also involved some chitchat about bringing the Sunnis onboard for the push towards federalism. They’re reluctant to go that route since Anbar doesn’t have much by way of oil, but if al-Hakim is willing to make a deal with them on resources in exchange for their support for decentralization, it would help isolate Baghdad and give SCIRI a freer hand over its own spheres of influence in the Shiite areas. How Sadr will react to that I guess we’ll see.

One more year, says Anthony Cordesman. The upside is too great to give up now.

Update: WaPo, page A01. The Anbar awakening + the surge + the tragic low-grade ethnic cleansing of mixed neighborhoods = hard times for Wahhabis, possibly to the tune of 60-70% degradation of their capabilities by Gen. Odierno’s estimation.

The U.S. military believes it has dealt devastating and perhaps irreversible blows to al-Qaeda in Iraq in recent months, leading some generals to advocate a declaration of victory over the group, which the Bush administration has long described as the most lethal U.S. adversary in Iraq…

There is widespread agreement that AQI has suffered major blows over the past three months. Among the indicators cited is a sharp drop in suicide bombings, the group’s signature attack, from more than 60 in January to around 30 a month since July. Captures and interrogations of AQI leaders over the summer had what a senior military intelligence official called a “cascade effect,” leading to other killings and captures. The flow of foreign fighters through Syria into Iraq has also diminished, although officials are unsure of the reason and are concerned that the broader al-Qaeda network may be diverting new recruits to Afghanistan and elsewhere…

In Baghdad, the White House official said, the group’s “area of operations has been reduced quite a bit for a variety of reasons, some good and some bad.” Three years of sectarian fighting have eliminated many mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhoods. Those areas had been the most fertile and accessible places for AQI, which is composed of extremist Sunnis, to attack Shiite civilians, security forces and government officials. But the death of mixed neighborhoods also has made another Bush administration priority — promoting political reconciliation — more difficult. The expanded presence of U.S. troops in combat outposts in many parts of Baghdad has also put pressure on AQI, but a major test of gains against the organization will come when the U.S. military begins to turn security in those areas over to Iraqi forces next year.

Amazingly, some military leaders want to seize the moment and declare victory over AQI, thereby not only opening themselves to another “Mission Accomplished” fiasco if the jihadis regroup but practically daring them to prove us wrong by pouring more men and materiel into the country and setting it on fire all over again. Petraeus and Adm. Fallon reportedly, and thankfully, think it’s a nutty idea.

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