October is on course to record the second consecutive decline in U.S. military and Iraqi civilian deaths and American commanders say they know why: the U.S. troop increase and an Iraqi groundswell against al Qaeda and Shiite militia extremists.
Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch points to what the military calls "Concerned Citizens" - both Shiites and Sunnis who have joined the American fight. He says he's signed up 20,000 of them in the past four months.
"I've never been more optimistic than I am right now with the progress we've made in Iraq. The only people who are going to win this counterinsurgency project are the people of Iraq. We've said that all along. And now they're coming forward in masses," Lynch said in a recent interview at a U.S. base deep in hostile territory south of Baghdad. Outgoing artillery thundered as he spoke.
Lynch, who commands the 3rd Infantry Division and once served as the military spokesman in Baghdad, is a tireless cheerleader of the American effort in Iraq. But the death toll over the past two months appears to reinforce his optimism. The question, of course: Will it last?
As of Tuesday, the Pentagon has reported 28 U.S. military deaths in October. At the current pace, the monthly total will be about 37 or 38. That would be the lowest total since 31 in March 2006 and the second lowest monthly toll stretching back to February 2004, when 20 soldiers died.
In September, 65 U.S. soldiers died in Iraq.
Part of the trend can be seen in a volatile and violent band of lush agricultural land on Baghdad's southern border.
The commander of the battle zone - Lt. Col. Val Keaveny, 3rd Battalion, 509th Infantry (Airborne) - said his unit has lost only one soldier in the past four months despite intensified operations against both Shiite and Sunni extremists, including powerful al Qaeda in Iraq cells.
Keaveny attributes the startling decline to a decrease in attacks by militants who are being rounded up in big numbers on information provided by the citizen force - which has literally doubled the number of eyes and ears available to the military.
In other developments:Iraq's government, under growing pressure to crack down on Kurdish rebels using the country's north as a base for guerrilla attacks in Turkey, ordered their offices closed Tuesday and promised to curb their movements and block their funds. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Tuesday ordered new measures to improve government oversight of private guards who protect U.S. diplomats in Iraq, including extensive cultural awareness training for contractors. A U.S. helicopter opened fire on a group of men as they were planting roadside bombs in a Sunni stronghold north of Baghdad on Tuesday, then chased them into a nearby house, killing 11 Iraqis, including five women and one child, the military said. A new report says the State Department so badly managed a $1.2 billion contract for Iraqi police training that it can't tell what it got for the money spent. Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction Stuart Bowen said invoices and records on the project are in disarray, and the government is trying to recoup money paid inappropriately to contractor DynCorp.At least 1,000 Iraqis are fleeing their homes each day because of violence and insecurity a figure that could increase with threats of cross-border attacks into northern Iraq, the U.N. refugee agency said Tuesday. Nearly 4.5 million Iraqis have fled the country or have been displaced inside Iraq, said the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun said Tuesday the government has decided to extend the country's troop deployment in Iraq for another year - a move expected to face tough opposition in parliament. South Korea has 1,200 troops in Iraq, but the government says it will halve this number. Their mission is due to expire at the end of this year. Washington has asked for an extension.In a new audiotape message broadcast Monday, Osama bin Laden scolded his al-Qaeda followers in Iraq and other insurgents, saying they have "been lax" for failing to overcome fanatical tribal loyalties and unite in the fight against U.S. troops.
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