With one day left in the month, American casualties in July are the lowest since the troop surge began in February, reports CBS News national security correspondent David Martin
, and civilian casualties are down by a third.
U.S. officials attribute that to the dismantling of networks which make roadside bombs and to American soldiers protecting the local population.
It would only take a few spectacular attacks to reverse those trends, but even critics of the war strategy are encouraged.
"The moment we got to Baghdad, everything felt very different from previous trips to Iraq," says former CIA analyst Ken Pollack.
Earlier this year, Pollack published an article about Iraq titled "Things Fall Apart." Now he sees "a sudden change in American fortunes."
"This is the first time I have gone to Iraq and actually felt that the United States knew what it was doing and was actually creating some degree of progress," Pollack says.
Retired Marine Gen. Jim Jones, who is conducting a congressionally ordered study of the Iraqi security forces, also came back from Iraq saying privately it was better than he expected.
By any measure, Iraq is still a deadly mess; no one is claiming to see light at the end of the tunnel.
"We have not won this war," Pollack says. "And we didn't see something that looked like victory over in Iraq. All we saw was progress."
It's just enough progress so that a critic like Michael O'Hanlon, who used to think the surge was too little too late, now believes it should be continued.
"For me, gut instinct, just piecing all of the information together subjectively, I thought we should give it a few more months into 2008," O'Hanlon says.
That is exactly what the American commander Gen. David Petraeus wants — continue the surge into next spring and then start a gradual withdrawal back to the pre-surge troop level of 130,000 by the end of 2008.
In other developments: CBS News correspondent Allen Pizzey reports on one U.S. commander who braves the life-threatening hazards in Baghdad to give Iraqis running water. A Fort Campbell, Ky., soldier accused of acting as a lookout while his colleagues attacked and killed a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and her family pleaded guilty to some lesser offenses Monday as his court-martial began on rape and murder charges. Pfc. Jesse Spielman pleaded to conspiracy to obstruct justice, arson, wrongfully touching a corpse and drinking. He still faces trial on the more serious charges in the March 2006 attack on Abeer Qassim al-Janabi and her family. The latest audit report to Congress on Iraq reconstruction says corruption in the country, including fraud, theft and skimming amounts to a "second insurgency" is hindering the rebuilding effort. Stuart Bowen, who wrote the quarterly report, tells The Associated Press that except for security, corruption is the biggest challenge for the Iraqi government to overcome. Failure to maintain projects, once transferred to the Baghdad government, also figures in the report. Republicans increasingly are backing a new approach in the Iraq war that could become the party's mantra come September. It would mean narrowly limiting missions for U.S. troops but letting President Bush decide when troops should come home. So far, the idea has not attracted the attention of Democratic leaders.
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