BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Violence in Iraq has fallen to its lowest level since before a 2006 mosque attack which unleashed reprisal sectarian killings, the number two commander of U.S. forces in Iraq said on Thursday.
Lieutenant-General Raymond Odierno said attacks in Baghdad had also fallen about 50 percent since January, just before Washington began pouring 30,000 extra troops into Iraq to try to drag the nation back from the brink of civil war.
“There are still way too many civilian casualties inside of Baghdad and Iraq,” Odierno said, after telling a news conference the number of sectarian killings in the capital had fallen from an average of about 32 a day to 12 this year.
U.S. forces launched a security crackdown in Baghdad in February which later spread to other provinces, targeting Sunni Islamist al Qaeda and other Sunni Arab insurgents as well as Shi’ite militias.
“Al Qaeda in Iraq is increasingly being pushed out of Baghdad and the surrounding areas. They are now seeking refuge elsewhere in the country and even fleeing Iraq,” Odierno said.
He said there had been no sign of any reprisal attacks since a Baghdad shooting incident on Sunday involving U.S. security firm Blackwater in which 11 people were killed.
U.S. and Iraqi officials have launched a joint inquiry into the incident, with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government announcing it had halted Blackwater’s operations and would review the activities of all local and foreign security firms.
“It’s amazing to me the great restraint that the Iraqis showed and we’re very thankful for that,” Odierno said.
The security crackdown was seen by Washington as an attempt to buy time for Iraq’s fractured coalition government to reach political benchmarks aimed at reconciling majority Shi’ites and minority Sunni Arabs dominant under Saddam Hussein.
The bombing of the golden-domed al-Askari mosque in Samarra north of Baghdad in February 2006 triggered the deadliest phase of violence since the U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam in March 2003.
Odierno said U.S. and Iraqi forces had been pushing ahead with their strategy of keeping al Qaeda and other militant groups “off balance” by targeting their leadership.
U.S. troops this year have been pushing out of large bases into smaller combat outposts and joint command centres in neighborhoods in Baghdad and areas around the city.
This had also led to a increase in the discovery of weapons caches, which in turn resulted in a decrease in the number of attacks by improvised explosive devices or roadside bombs, by far the biggest killers of U.S. troops in Iraq, Odierno said.
He said 60 percent more weapons caches had been discovered in the first nine months of 2007 than in all of 2006.
General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, and ambassador Ryan Crocker reported to Congress last week that some security improvements had been achieved although the pace of political progress was disappointing.
U.S. President George W. Bush, under pressure to show progress in the unpopular war or bring troops home, later announced a limited withdrawal of about 20,000 troops by July.
U.S. commanders say troop withdrawals can only be done as Iraqi security forces are trained to take over responsibility, which Odierno said was “a very deliberate process.”
“We will not give back any of the hard-fought gains because we tried to rush this process,” he said.