UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – Violence in Iraq has decreased sharply but al Qaeda, Iranian-backed fighters and other militants remain a serious threat, as this week’s bomb attacks showed, Washington’s U.N. envoy said on Friday.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Zalmay Khalilzad told the U.N. Security Council about the latest statistics on the decline in deadly attacks in Iraq more than five years after a U.S.-led invasion toppled the government of Saddam Hussein.
He said civilian deaths have declined by 80 percent since June 2007, while the number of Iraqi security forces fell by 84 percent and U.S. military deaths by 87 percent. The number of people killed as a result of ethnic and sectarian violence dropped by 95 percent during the same period, he said.
There were additional signs of the improvement in Iraq’s security situation: an 81 percent decline in detonations of improvised explosive devices, known as IEDs, and a 72 percent drop in suicide bombings, Khalilzad said.
But he made clear this did not mean Iraq was safe or the insurgency dead.
“Al Qaeda in Iraq remains a significant threat, as do Iranian surrogate militants, and JAM,” Khalilzad told the council, referring to the Jaysh al-Mahdi, or Mehdi Army.
“All retain the intent and capability of carrying out lethal attacks against the Iraqi people, such as the multiple bombings that occurred this week,” he said.
Car and roadside bombs exploding in quick succession killed 12 people and wounded 60 in Baghdad on Wednesday. Other bombs killed or wounded more elsewhere in Baghdad on the same day.
Khalilzad said al Qaeda’s increased use of people to detonate IEDs and female suicide bombers were a “particular challenge.”
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The U.S. envoy’s remarks to the Security Council appeared somewhat less optimistic than those of Michael Hayden, director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, who addressed the Atlantic Council of the United States on Thursday.
“No matter what residual tactical strength it retains in Iraq, though, the most important point (is) that al Qaeda in Iraq is on the verge of strategic defeat,” Hayden said.
Khalilzad reiterated U.S. allegations that Iran is interfering in Iraqi politics and undermining political developments there, a charge Tehran has repeatedly denied.
He added that foreign fighters continued to flow into Iraq from Syria, through he said the numbers were decreasing. He did not refer to a U.S. air strike in eastern Syria which a U.S. official said killed a top smuggler of fighters into Iraq.
Damascus said the raid last month killed eight civilians.
Iraq’s negotiations with the United States on an agreement on the future of U.S. forces in Iraq continued, Khalilzad said. That agreement would replace the Security Council mandate, which expires at the end of next month.
Iraqi Ambassador Hamid al-Bayati said before the meeting that he was confident Baghdad and Washington would finalize the pact soon, but that the Security Council mandate could be temporarily rolled over into next year if needed.
U.N. special envoy to Iraq Staffan de Mistura confirmed that the security situation in Iraq had improved significantly but warned council members that a spike in violence was possible before provincial elections scheduled for January 31.