Petraeus Touts Iraq Violence Decline

A U.S. army soldier pays his last respect to his fallen comrade, Sgt. Blair W. Emery, a soldier from the 571st Military Police Company, during a memorial service at Camp Warhorse, about 60 kilometers (35 miles) northeast of Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2007. (AP Photo/Marko Drobnjakovic)[Click image for details ] AP Photo/Marko Drobnjakovic

Citing a 60 percent decline in violence in Iraq over the last six months, the top U.S. commander in Iraq said Thursday that maintaining security is easier than establishing it and gives him more flexibility in deploying forces.

Armed with charts showing that as of Wednesday, weekly attacks and Iraqi civilian deaths have continued to plunge to levels not seen here since early 2006, Gen. David Petraeus said the reduction lets him make force adjustments to address remaining problem areas, which would include northern Iraq.

Speaking to reporters at the U.S. military's Camp Victory, he said the improved security is due to a number of factors including a "a reduction in some of the signature attacks that are associated with weapons provided by Iran," as well as a cease-fire called by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr that he said had a particularly noticeable impact what had been one of the most violent areas of Baghdad.

The U.S. military has accused Iran of funding and arming Shiite extremists, particularly with explosively formed penetrators, an armor-piercing roadside bomb that has killed hundreds of U.S. troops. Tehran denies the charge.

Petraeus noted the numbers of such attacks has gone down. But, he added, it is "hard to tell if that's because there has already been a cessation of provision of those items, or if there has been direction to stop."

At the same time, he said the military has detained individuals as recently as October who were trained by Iranians, evidence that the instruction has continued.

Petraeus, who is scheduled to give U.S. Congress and the American people an update next March on progress in Iraq, and map out some plans for U.S. force levels down the road, refused to offer too much optimism.

"Nobody says anything about turning a corner, seeing lights at the end of tunnels, any of those other phrases," said Petraeus. "You just keep your head down and keep moving."

He said that commanders reviewed violence trends in late November and found a steep decline from days a year ago in which hundreds of Iraqis were killed and American troops suffered heavy losses. He said attacks continued on a steady basis but were less deadly, pointing to a day last month when there were just 45-50 attacks.

Petraeus met for about an hour Thursday with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who was in Iraq for his sixth visit in the past year.

The general has overseen the military's build up in Iraq this year, as force levels jumped to 20 combat brigades, with more than 180,000 troops, during certain times when some of the units overlapped as they moved in and out of the country.

"There's nobody in uniform who is doing victory dances in the end zone," said Petraeus, saying it will require more tough work against a very dangerous adversary.

In Other Developments:

  • Shiite villagers paraded empty coffins at mock funerals near Baghdad on Thursday, demonstrating against alleged al Qaeda in Iraq attacks that killed as many as 45 people in a single village in recent months. Hundreds of residents and Muslim sheiks from Dwelah, a Shiite enclave about 45 miles north of Baghdad, held a procession in the Bawya area south of the capital, because they feared reprisals if they did so in their hometown. Another rally weaved through thoroughfares in Baghdad's mixed Karradah neighbourhood, where Dwelah residents and their Shiite brethren from the capital demanded more protection from the Iraqi government.

  • Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., returning from his fourth trip to Iraq, said he was encouraged by signs of reduced violence but discouraged by the lack of political progress in the country. "That obviously is the name of the game," Kind said in a telephone interview Wednesday. "The whole point of the surge was to create the right environment to allow the political reconciliation to take place. … The overall question is can we sustain this reduction in violence, or is this just a temporary ceasefire? And no one could really answer that. And is there some hope for political reconciliation at the end of the day, and when will it occur? No can answer that question either."

  • The body of a Maine soldier is expected to arrive home today. The family of Sgt. Blair Emery said he was scheduled to return home at the end of October. Instead, his tour was extended by three months, and he was killed by an improvised explosive device. The local American Legion post plan to line the streets when his body is returned to his hometown of Lee.
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