The U.S. military in Iraq must shift its focus toward helping the government restore basic services and boost the economy, while still holding onto fragile security improvements, the top U.S. general in Iraq said Friday.
In a letter to his troops, Gen. David Petraeus said that even as the U.S. begins to pull out forces from Iraq, the military must capitalize on the recent decline in attacks and casualties.
"While the progress in a number of areas is fragile, the security improvements have significantly changed the situation in many parts of Iraq," Petraeus said in the letter sent Friday. "It is now imperative that we take advantage of these improvements by looking beyond the security arena and helping Iraqi military and political leaders as they develop solutions in other areas as well, solutions they can sustain over time."
Specifically, he said troops need to help the Iraqi government create jobs, revitalize markets, refurbish schools and restore critical services. The Iraqis have struggled to provide basic electricity and water - with Baghdad residents averaging a little more than 11 hours of electricity a day, according to a recent report.
At the same time, Petraeus said the U.S. also must press the Iraqis to pass critical political reforms and help them develop their government agencies and aid returning refugees. He said that while progress toward political reform has been slow, leaders are starting to make some progress.
The new emphasis on aiding the government, Petraeus said, must come "while continuing to draw down our forces, thinning our presence, and gradually handing over responsibilities to our Iraqi partners."
Mapping out the expected withdrawal of U.S. troops over the coming months, Petraeus said that so far one Army brigade and one Marine Expeditionary Unit have gone home and have not been replaced. Four more brigades and two Marine battalions will follow suit in the next six months or so.
"And in the midst of all the changes, we and our Iraqi partners will strive to maintain the momentum, to press the fight, and to pursue Iraq's enemies relentlessly," Petraeus said.
In the past month, Petraeus and other Pentagon officials have cautiously touted a recent decline in violence, resulting largely from the build up of U.S. forces over the summer and greater involvement and effort by tribal leaders and local citizens to turn in terrorists and support their security forces.
The news has not been all good, though, as insurgents shifted their attention and attacks to the north, prompting U.S. forces there to ask for more troops.
Still, in his letter, Petraeus spoke rather optimistically about the stark comparison between conditions in Baghdad a year ago, and what they are now. He pointed to a 60 percent decline in attacks since June, and a 75 percent drop in civilian deaths in the last year.
"A year ago, Iraq was racked by horrific violence and on the brink of civil war. Now, levels of violence and civilian and military casualties are significantly reduced and hope has been rekindled in many Iraqi communities," Petraeus said. "To be sure, the progress is reversible and there is much more to be done. Nonetheless, the hard-fought accomplishments of 2007 have been substantial, and I want to thank each of you for the contributions you made to them."
He ended by warning that there will be "more tough days and tough weeks" and that unforeseen challenges will emerge. But he said that as the new year begins, there is a newfound sense of hope.
The tone of his letter was in stark contrast a missive issued in February, as the Pentagon began deploying thousands of additional troops to the battlefront in a desperate push to quell escalating violence in Baghdad.
Then, Petraeus warned of tough times ahead, predicting a difficult, but pivotal campaign in which "the stakes could not be higher."
In fact, it was a deadly year for U.S. troops in Iraq.
U.S. casualties rose this spring as the number of forces was increased to more than 165,000. At the peak this fall, as units overlapped moving in and out of Iraq, there were more than 172,000 troops there.
There were 126 fatalities in May - the highest monthly total since November 2004. Another 101 died in June. But casualties began to decline, and as of Dec. 26, there were 20 U.S. military deaths in Iraq this month.
There are currently about 158,000 U.S. forces in Iraq.